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ISSUE 64 2004 


NEW 

DIRECTIONS? 

TAKASHI MIIKE 
Japan's horror master 

NATIONAL CINEMAS TODAY 
Viet Nam, Korea 



ECO-TOUR OF HOLLYWOOD 
INDIGENOUS CINEMA 
Canada, NZ and Australia 


EXPLORATIONS OF 
NATIONAL IDENTITY 
US, Britain, Hungary 


USF^: S7.00 C^^N: $6.00 



THE COLLECTIVE 
Scott Forsyth 
Florence Jacobov/itz 
Richard Lippe 
Susan Morrison 
Robin Wood 
Design; Bob Wilcox 

CineAction is published three times 
a year by the CineAction collective. 


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articles are not necessarily endorsed by the 
editorial collective. 

All articles herein are copyright August 
2004 by CineAction and may not be 
reproduced without permission. 

We v/ould like to thank the Canada 
Council for their generous support 
CineAction is owned and operated by 
CineAction. a collective for the advancement 
of film studies. CineAction is a non-profit 
organization 

ISSN 0826-9866 

Printed and bound in Canada. 

STILLS; Thanks to the Film Reference 
Library. Toronto: Toronto International Film 
Festival. Colin Geddes; Peter Harry Rist; Kim 
Worthy. David Lee SMPSP. © Touchstone 
Pictures. All rights reserved. 

FRONT COVER; Ichi the Killer 
BACK COVER; Atanarjuat The Fast Runner 
RIGHT; Run. Lola. Run 
FACING PAGE; Volcano High 




Where Globalization and Localization Meet 

SPIKE LEE'S THE 25th HOUR 
by Patricia O'Neill 

The Politics of Hiccups 

NATIONAL CINEMA WITHOUT NATIONAL LANGUAGE 
by Aniko Imre 

Two Stories, One Right, One Wrong 

NARRATIVE, NATIONAL IDENTITY AND GLOBALIZATION 
IN SLIDING DOORS 
by David Martin-Janes 

The Passion of Global Holijrwood 

ivansxtc. 

by Lisa Kernan 

Korean Cinema Now 

BALANCING CREATIVITY AND COMMERCE 
IN AN EMERGENT NATIONAL INDUSTRY 

by Peter Harry Rist 

Striking Home 

TRENDS AND CHANGES IN VIETNAMESE CINEMA 
by Kim Worthy 

Takashi Miike's Cinema of Outrage 

by Tony Williams 

Indigenous Feature Films 

A NEW HOPE FOR NATIONAL CINEMAS? 
by Jennifer L. Gauthier 


LETTERS 


Issue 65 

New Canadian Films; 
Hollywood and the 
American Empire 

Edited by Scott Forsyth 

sforsyth@yorku.ca 

Submission deadline Oct. 1 5, 2004 

Issue 66 

Questions of Value: 
Evaluation, Revaluation, 
Devaluation 

Edited by Robin Wood 
richardlippel 2@hotmail.com 
Submission deadline Feb. 1, 2005 



SUBMISSIONS WELCOME 


MFW PIRE<~riQMS7 


The conceit of the question mark added to '"New Directions?" was intended 
to open up the line of possible inquiry rather than frame it too narrowly. As 
well, I wanted to set up a series of doubts rather than certainties about the 
state of film and filmmaking today. The central question here is whether 
there are any identifiable trends and directions in the first place. Are we, for 
Instance, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, witnessing any sort of 
transformation In filmmaking, production, distribution, reception? Have the 
parameters changed because of a recent move towards transnationalism or 
multi-nationalism in film production? Is there still the possibility (or desir- 
ability) of a distinctly national cinema? At the same time, are there individual 
films and/or filmmakers that challenge the conventions of the medium? 

One of the underlying, anxiety-producing, concerns of editing an issue of 
this magazine Is that, once the 'call for papers' has been put out, you never 
know what the mail (or rather, email) will bring; that is, how your chosen 
theme will be materialized, 'made into flesh' — interpreted, expanded, 
stretched and/or manipulated. I am delighted (and relieved) to be able to 
say that, while the papers contained in this issue cover a lot of ground, they 
do so with a depth of analysis and insight that contributes to a broader 
understanding of the possibilities inherent in cinema today. 

Four of the papers deal more or less with specific films — Spike Lee's The 
25th Hour (2003) , Gyorgy Palfi's Hukk/e, (2002), Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors 
(1997) , and Bernard Rose's ivansxtc.(2000) — firmly locating their films within 
the social and political issues of national identities in such a way that unfa- 
miliarity with these films is not a deterrent. National Identity of a different 
sort, one concerned with the Intersection of indigenous histories and 
contemporary filmmaking in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, is the focus 
of Jennifer L. Gauthier's paper on Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat/The Fast 
Runner (2002), Philip Noyce's Rabbit- Proof Fence (2002), and Niki Caro's Whale 
Rider(2005). In addition, there are two papers that provide useful surveys of 
the current state of National Cinema in two areas of East Asia that have bur- 
geoning film industries: Viet Nam and South Korea. And finally, the current 
darling of Japanese horror films, Takashi Miike, is the subject of a paper by 
Tony Williams that explores the thematic trends as well as the chronological 
development of this 'take no prisoners' cult figure, with specific reference to 
the three Dead or Alive films (1999-2002). 

The cover image, from Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer (2001), while one of 
the least lurid images possible from his brutally sadistic film, nevertheless 
stands in for a 'petit hommage' on my part to Tadanobu Asano, who plays the 
part of Kakihara. An amazingly talented and versatile young actor/megastar 
In Japan, Asano has been seen internationally in films as diverse as Kore-eda's 
Distance (2001), Oshima's Taboo/Cohatto (2002), Kitano's Zatoichi (2003) 
and, from Thailand, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe(2003). His 
popularity among art film directors Is such that the Toronto International 
film Festival often seems to offer 'mini-Asano' festivals (he starred in three 
films In 2000, three in 2001, and three In 2003). 

Susan Morrison ' 





• . wi '..V. 













Where Globalization and 

SPIKE LEE'S THE 25^^ HOUR 


BY PATRICIA O'NEILL 

Spike Lee's The 25^^ Hour was the first feature film to 
acknowledge the attacks on the World Trade Center. In 
bearing witness to the devastation at ground zero and the 
memorials that appeared all over the city, another film- 
maker might have worried about exploiting the city and the 
nation's grief. But New York City has always been a charac- 
ter in Lee's films and this time the juxtaposition of the 
financial district to the parks, bridges and neighborhoods of 
Lee's multi-ethnic characters allowed him to represent in 
tandem two forms of globalization at work in cities like 
New York. The global city, according to Saskia Sassen, is a 
site for a new transnational politics based on the geograph- 
ical concentration of international financial institutions 
and disadvantaged immigrant and ethnic workers who hold 
the other jobs in the global economy. i Lee's New York City 
in the aftermath of 9/1 1 not only recalls his earlier sense of 
the tinderbox nature of the city's social organization, but 
also now manifests the barely repressed shame, the denied 
guilt, and the sneaking suspicion that what is dreadfully 
wrong with the world is the unresolved tension between 
global dreams and local realities. 

Lee himself confirms the personal way New Yorkers 
responded to the events of that day: "1 felt compelled to do 
it because I'm a New Yorker; I'm an American; I'm a world 
citizen.... 1 felt that it would be a missed opportunity if we 
did not somehow reflect how the world has changed. If 
The 25^^' Hour insists on facing the shattered illusions of a 
once invulnerable society, it also shows that local realities 
and social consciousness still provide the only grounds for 
social or collective reconstruction. By extending his critique 
of social injustice against the politically disadvantaged to 
the terrorist attacks of Osama bin Laden, by daring to film 
ground zero, and by subverting the myth of the American 
West as a viable escape from responsibility, personal or his- 
torical, Spike Lee's film offers us one of the very few mean- 
ingful American responses to globalization and the attack 
on the World Trade Center. 

"In its deepest sense, after all, a great city is more than a 
geographic or economic entity," writes James Saunders in 
the introduction to his book The Celluloiti Skyline,^ For 
Saunders, New York City has become a mythic place, "an 
extraordinary cultural construct spanning hundreds of indi- 


vidual films." Saunder's comprehensive and insightful sur- 
vey of the ways in which New York City reflects and creates 
"America's archetypal metropolitan setting" underscores 
the importance that both film and New York City hold for 
the world imaginary. Yet because the myth of New York is 
constructed as much in the back lots of Hollywood as on 
location in the city, Saunders does not fully recognize the 
significance of Lee's special role as a New York City film- 
maker. Although Spike Lee is often compared to Woody 
Allen and Martin Scorsese, his particular filmmaking 
process and vision of the city has an activist edge to it that 
they lack. Beyond Lee's personal affection for the place 
where he lives, he has represented the multiplicity of expe- 
riences that comprise the city's cultural diversity and 
explored the ways in which class and race together con- 
struct New York City as a global crossroads. Other filmmak- 
ers have exploited the cityscape and the energy of its streets 
to frame sometimes fairly limited views of its inhabitants. 
But Lee has worked in the opposite direction to represent 
the neighborhoods, the unsung bridges, parks, clubs, and 
dwellings where a whole range of character types drawn 
from ethnic minorities and immigrant populations struggle 
with the effects of globalization. Lee's characters give life to 
the city; and the city takes its meaning from our under- 
standing of their lives. 

1 don't mean to suggest that Lee's goal is sociological or 
that his aesthetic is primarily realist, for there is little that is 
naturalistic in the kind of storytelling that he does. Rather 
Lee uses a filmic style to reveal New York City as a contact 
zone, a place where, in the words of Mary Louise Pratt, cul- 
tures clash because of asymmetrical power relations.** Lee's 
gift is in providing his audience with the kind of double- 
consciousness necessary for dealing with the contact zone. 
On the one hand we are made aware of the narrow views of 
the protagonists, their limitations but also their place with- 
in a network of friends and family. On the other hand, we 
see the protagonists caught in the wider world of class, race 
and gender in America and we see their struggles through 
Lee's eyes as representative of the stresses that afflict our 
contemporary social and economic situation. To this extent 
all of Lee's stories become quests to know the world as it is 
today. The characters remain characters and are usually part 



Localization Meet 


of an ensemble, the setting has a local history and materi- 
al significance, and the people on the streets of New York 
show up not as a chorus of conventional wisdom but as 
extensions of the characters themselves, underscoring the 
multiple identities that any personality must encompass in 
the global city today. 

In his book. The Garden in the Machine, Scott MacDonald 
discusses the history of films about place. The chapter "The 
City as Motion Picture" focuses on films about American 
cities, beginning with New York City. Because, as 
MacDonald notes, the evolution of big industrial cities 
coincides with the development of motion picture tech- 
nology, many early films present aspects of city life. But the 
genre of films known as "city symphonies" concentrates 
on a typical day in the life of a major metropolis. These 
films are both documentaries that mirror the history and 
national character of the place and experimental films that 
display the technical innovations and personal visions of 
the filmmakers. Thus films from Charles Sheeler and Paul 
Strand's Manhatta (1921) to Weegee's New York (1950s) and 
Francis Thompson's N.Y, NY (1957) provide evidence of 
New York City's social complexity and its evocative power 
for many of America's most important experimental artists. 

Into this illustrious company, Macdonald introduces 
Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989). By placing Lee's work 
in the context of the "city symphony," Macdonald 
reminds us that independent filmmaking has a long and 
distinguished history and that our understanding of con- 
temporary narrative works demands that we extend our 
thinking about them beyond sensationalistic marketing or 
thematic critiques of the moment. The result is to see Lee's 
portrayal of one day in the life of one neighborhood as 
"paradoxically a metaphor for, a premonition of the 
transnational dimension of urban life around the world. 
The 25^^^ Hour makes the transnational dimension of New 
York City explicit in its attention to the destruction of the 
World Trade Center and the details of its many immigrant 
and minority cultures. 

The introduction of DVD formats for home viewing has 
made the filmmaking process more accessible to audiences 
and scholars alike and has provided an excellent forum for 
the exploration of independent film efforts. In the case of 

Edward Norton as Montgomery 

Brogan on the last day before his 

7-year jail sentence begins. 


Spike Lee's film Do the Ri^ht the special features on 

the Criterion version are particularly informative. In a doc- 
umentary on the making of the film we learn about the 
e.xtensive pre-production work that was done before shoot- 
ing Do the Ri^ht Tiling on location in the Bedford-Stuyvesant 
neighborhood in Brooklyn. Since the film industry usually 
thinks of the audience for films as passive consumers, the 
attention of producers is often limited to their distribution 
and marketability. In recent years, the cost of filmmaking 
on location in the city has increased substantially, and 
many films whose stories are situated in New York City are 
actually shot elsewhere. But in Do the Ri^^ht Thhtsi, Spike Lee 
assembled a cast and crew that reflect the diversity of the 
city's poorer neighborhoods. In every vignette within the 
film's main narrative, another brushstroke of activity or dia- 
logue sketches for us otherwise neglected details of city life. 

To an unusual e.xtent, l.ee also involved the neighbor- 
hood in the production of the film. .Although New Yorkers 
in Manhattan are used to walking around film shoots, the 
people of Brooklyn who gave access and support to the 
film's crew and cast, became for a time active participants in 
the filmmaking process. Shooting on location, making a 
neglected block the center of world attention, and telling 
the events of a single day in the life of the city with a some- 
what improvised organization and schedule, Lee did not 
change the conditions of life for the people living there, but 


he obviously heightened their awareness of themselves as 
actors in the world and certainly astonished viewers of the 
film in other parts of the world. At Cannes, Lee challenged 
reporters from Europe to look to the racism in their own 
societies before they took offense at or smugly accepted 
Lee's critique of American racism. Beginning with Do the 
Ri^ht rhin\i, the authority of Lee's representation of 
American society has grown with each of his films, regard- 
less of their individual success at the bo.x office. 

Similarly, I'he 25^^* Hour is populated with ordinary city 
folks: joggers, drivers, waitresses, bouncers, and crowds who 
stand in line to go to clubs, among whom the characters 
move with unassuming ease. In this way the film captures 
the working life of the city as much or more than the career 
of one individual, and to the e.\tent that the 25^^' Hour is 
about New York City after 9/11, Lee's use of actors and non- 
actors creates sympathy not for an everyman but for the 
common man who in the global city is always part of an 
ensemble. If the processes of globalization made the World 
lYade Center an icon of New York City's capacity for global 
control, the forces of localization have given the city its 
uniquely neighborhood feel. 

Given Lee's on-going e.xploration of the city's communal 
life, it is not hard to imagine why David Benioff's novella, 
from which Lee has taken the title, characters and storyline 
of his film, had such appeal to the director. And indeed one 


The dog represents Monty's one good deed, but the rest of his 
life seems "touched" by denial and betrayal. 


of the more intrij^uin^ aspects of the DVD formatted ver- 
sion of The 25^^* Hour is that Benioff's commentary con- 
tributes another way of analyzing the significance of the 
film. The novella was written before the attack, however, 
and as its author acknowledges, the inclusion of the event 
in the film's immediate memory and the treatment of the 
site of the attack permit us not only to view the devastation 
but also the work of survival. That Lee would include 
among the important changes he made to Benioff's book 
the filming of the site of the vanished World Trade Center 
is not, after all, surprising. For Lee to avoid the site, to pre- 
tend that nothing had happened as filmmakers who digi- 
tally removed the twin towers had implied, was anathema 
to his commitment to New York City as a material place. 
Lee chose instead to reflect the mood as well as the physi- 
cal damage caused by the attacks in order to challenge the 
viewer to recall and reflect upon this moment in New York's 
history. And by weaving history into the story of Benioff's 
protagonist, the film transforms the symbolic impact of the 
protagonist's choices and fate. 

The main character, Montgomery Brogan/Ed Norton, 
spends his last day before reporting to Otisville Prison say- 
ing goodbye to family, friends and the city that has been so 
much a part of his daily experience. Although it was not 
Benioff 's intention to see the story of Montgomery Brogan 
as an allegory for the United States and the consequences of 
its role in globalization, Lee's visual emphasis on a post 9/1 1 
cityscape and the self-accusations and conflicts between the 
characters give the movie a confessional tone, a sense of at 
least potential awareness of how "bad luck" might also be 
interpreted as bad choices. 

Ehe first person Brogan confronts with the question of 
blame is his father. Ehey meet at the father's Irish pub, 
which is decorated with memorials for the local firemen 
who died heroically when the Trade towers collapsed. 
When Mr. Brogan/Brian Cox begins to insinuate that 
Monty should not have become involved with a drug ring, 
Monty reminds him that he started dealing drugs to save 
the alcoholic father's business after Monty's mother's death. 
We also learn that Mr. Brogan has political connections, 
friends whom he suggests might help Monty with his case. 
From their conversation, we understand the sense of net- 
works and community relationships; the unofficial govern- 
ing structure of the metropolis, that at once provides oppor- 
tunities and ensnares individual ambitions. Monty rejects 
his father's help. In the restroom he looks in disgust at the 
words "Fuck you" marked on the mirror over the sink. 
According to Benioff's commentary, this scene alludes to a 
passage in J. D. Salinger's Catcher hi the Rye, a book that the 
author read in high school, like so many other American 
kids. More sophisticated than Salinger's character, Monty 
looks at himself and then begins to curse the various races 
and sub-cultures of the city for their hypocrisies and self- 
deceptions, including those he identifies with his friends 
and family. Drawing on news stories of the day, Monty also 
attacks the social injustices of the city leaders, the hypocrisy 
of government, and the villainy of Osama Bin Laden. The 
idea of the monologue comes from Benioff's book but here 
it gets added ammunition from its allusion to 9/1 1 and its 


aftermath and to a similar sequence in Do the Riyht Thiny. 
In both films, Lee shows how the individual's immediate 
sense of anger over social and economic inequality con- 
tributes to a general pattern of racist stereotypes that per- 
petuate social divisions among people who otherwise share 
the same frustrations with the city's political economy. 

While Monty's tirade recalls the name-calling chorus by 
several characters in Do the Riyht Tiling, it also extends the 
sense of social division to the city's geography. Different 
groups are represented by the names of their neighbor- 
hoods: Chelsea Boys, the Bronx, the ladies of the Upper Fast 
Side, etc. Whereas the street in Bed-Stuy seemed to be a 
microcosm for the city as a whole, Monty sizes up the city 
as a conglomeration of warring nations, defending their 
turf by excluding others, and so like a house divided, it 
cannot stand. Only in Monty's consciousness of his own 
culpability docs a sense of affiliation reestablish itself. At 
the end of his tirade, he looks at his image and curses him- 
self. Monty's recognition of himself as no better than those 
others with whom he lives in the global city is an important 
step in the film's coming to terms with questions of respon- 
sibility and fate. Thus it is with a new sense of sympathy 
that some of these faces reappear at the end of the film to 
acknowledge their kinship with Monty as he leaves town 
on his way to serve his prison term. 

Reviews of The 25^^^ Hour show how much Monty's "Fuck 
you speech" suggested itself as both a signature Spike Lee 
montage and a moment when questions of blame link 
Monty's story to the events of 9/11. For one London review- 
er, this scene reveals "New York's self-hatred and co-depend- 
ency on its ethnic diversity. This is a hymn to New Yorkers' 
compulsion to live looking disaster in the face, or at least to 
walk and talk it as if they were. But in the end we get a sense 
of a city whose own narcissism remains untamed by disas- 
ter. ... Monty's litany may say, "Fuck New York", but really 
it feels as if he's saying fuck everywhere but." ^ Fhis view 
rightly notes the ways in which New York City's status as a 
global city sets it apart from many other towns and cities in 
America. But whatever narcissism has lead Monty to his 
fate, Lee's perspective as a filmmaker is anything but 
parochial. The making of both Do the Riyht Thiu^ and The 
25^^^ Hour suggests instead Lee's politically savvy under- 
standing of the interconnections of globalization and local- 
ization both in the circumstances of his filmmaking and in 
the visual representation of the city. 

With the reluctant approval of his producers, Lee was 
able to keep in the final version of the film an extraordinary 
long take of Monty's high school friends talking in front of 
a window that gives the viewer a bird's eye view of ground 
zero less than a year after the disaster. Jake Elinsky/ Philip 
Seymour Hoffman has never been to Frank Slattery's/Barry 
Pepper high-rise apartment downtown and has not seen 
much of Monty either since their days together at a private 
high school. Yet there is clearly a bond between the middle- 
class, Jewish high school teacher and these two Irish schol- 
arship boys. Jake is appalled by Frank's dire predictions 
about Monty's future, but as we look over their shoulders 
into the lighted pit where once stood the tallest buildings 
in NY's cityscape, Frank's sarcasm and Jake's naivete are 


cineACTiON 5 


both overwhelmed by a sense of dread that life will never be 
the same, not only for Monty, but for anyone. As their con- 
versation ends, the camera dollies to the window so that we 
look directly on the scene of ruin. I he haunting score of 
lerence Blanchard, which mixes Irish and Arabic elements, 
and the lingering shots of slow moving trucks and bulldoz- 
ers pay tribute to the devastation. In the nighttime work of 
the clean-up crews, we are also given a sobering look at how 
the work of the city never stops. Filming these non-actors 
on location without permission or control, I.ee offers us a 
documentary moment without any specific suggestion for 
how we should interpret it. 

For Benioff, Monty's friends have been luckier than 
Monty; they arc survivors who have to deal with their guilt 
over Monty's had luck. But the film as a whole emphasizes 
another side of the story. The long take that frames Frank 
and Jake and their shadowy reflections in the window over- 
looking ground zero creates contiguity if not comparison 
between these men and the events of 9/11. Frank notes that 
Monty has been living high on other people's miseries. 
Later he will blame Monty's Puerto Rican girlfriend 
Naturellc Rivera/ Rosario Dawson for taking advantage of 
the lifestyle Monty's drug-dealing has supported, hut the 
guilt that brings Monty, Frank and Jake together is part of a 
social malaise for which we can see ground zero as cither 
the objective correlative or the result on a global scale of the 
tragic consequences ot the nation's unthinking sense of 
entitlement. For if Monty is to blame for participating in an 
international drug cartel run by Russian mobsters, Jake 
accuses Frank of defrauding foreign governments through 
his high risk dealings in financial markets. At the same time 
Jake must deal with his own feelings of alienation and lone- 
liness and his attraction to one of his high school students. 

Ihe difference between bad luck and bad choices 
becomes increasingly hard to define in this world of per- 
sonal and global interdependence. The shots of ground zero 
may be understood as non-narrative moments, justified 
only by the will of the tilm's auteur director. In that case, we 
can he grateful for Lee's foresight in preserving the mood of 
the city and the visual impact of the altered skyline for an 
otherwise all too amnesiac culture. But the sense of regret 
for missed opportunities and blind ambitions also offers an 
interpretive lens or frame for contemplating the reasons for 
the terrorist attack. 

In associating this story with shots of ground zero, Lee's 
film was hound to shock reviewers. One Canadian critic 
wrote: "It's all very timely and moving, hut what does it 
have to do with a story about the last hours of freedom of a 
convicted drug pusher? Is Lee making a gritty urban draina 
or auditioning to make the next series of "I Love New York" 
commercials?" ^ But a San Francisco reviewer notes that 
everyone in the movie seems to have been "hit on the head 
and just coming to.... Uncertainty, denial, anger, these 
characters represent our own befuddled reactions to the end 
ot a world where perhaps we thought we were innocent hut 
really had already traded on our souls."” Such an interpre- 
tive leap would not be possible without l.ee's direction. 

Trivializing, opportunistic, or hauntingly suggestive, the 
film demonstrates Lee's unwavering commitment to docu- 


menting the global city. In Do the Kisht Thins, violence 
explodes against the hegemonic power of the white estab- 
lishment. But in The 25^^^ Hour Lee embraces the cultural 
and ethnic diversity of the city in defiance of those who 
have tried to destroy it. If Monty's story is not an allegory 
for the had choices that led to the attacks of 9/11, the flags 
and memorials for those who died that show up in the 
background of so many scenes in the film provoke our sym- 
pathy for the truly bad luck of innocent victims, especially 
the firemen of local No. 5 in Staten Island, to whom the 
film is dedicated. Fhe recurring shots of American flags and 
flowers permeate the atmosphere of the film and provide a 
counterpoint to the poetic and elegiac theme underlying 
Monty's father's fantasy of a "life that came so close to 
nev'cr happening." 

Despite the fact that Benioff, Lee and actor FTiward 
Norton agreed that Montgomery Brogan was not a sympa- 
thetic character, the film's depiction of the loyalty of his 
friends and lover, the concern he shows for his dog, his 
restraint when given the opportunity to avenge himself on 
the man who tipped off the police, and his general affabili- 
ty create a sense of Monty not as the drug-dealing exploiter 
of urban youth, but the misguided city kid whose ambigu- 
ous character is reflected in the city itself. As Mick LaSalle 
writes, "Samuel Johnson once said that when a man is tired 
ot London, he's tired of life. Lee is showing that when a 
man is sick of New York, he's sick of the world and every- 
thing in it." In following Monty over the course of one 
day, Lee details the locations and social life of a citv that are 
essential to Monty's identity. As Lee has said of himself, "I 
live here. I grew up here. So this is my home. It's always 
going to he my home."><> It is initially curious, then, that 
the film should end with an extended fantasy about a new 
life out west. 

As Monty and his father drive north along the West Side 
Highway toward the prison, Monty's father suggests that 
they take the George Washington Bridge instead and drive 
west. In a dream-like sequence, the father narrates a future 
in which Monty and he see the country that lies beyond the 
city. They will go as far as Texas, where no one will know 
him. While Monty's father's voice-over explains, the visual 
scene becomes increasingly golden. Monty will get a job 
and make a new life for himself and then sometime later 
Naturelle will join him and they will marry and have chil- 
dren. When he Is old he will tell his kids and grandkids of 
his story and how close he came to never having such a life. 
The story and the scenes remind us of the promise that 
going west had for eastern and immigrant families in the 
nineteenth century and again after World War 11. Although 
Mr. Brogan insists that Monty will always miss New York, 
that the city is somehow in his bones, the idyllic future that 
he imagines captures the American dream of a new life else- 
where and the conventional promise of the classical 
Hollywood film of a happy ending. Then the film returns us 
to Monty's bruised face and the car that is heading inex- 
orably north. 

Although some viewers have thought the ending 
ambiguous, Lee is clear that in the end Monty goes to 
prison, that the proposed trip out west and the new life 


6 cineACTiON 



Bad luck or bad choices? Monty confronts his father with the 
reasons for his involvement with the drug trade. 


Monty's father imagines for his son is just a fantasy. What 
is striking for the viewer is the way the film taps into 
.America's mythology about the west so perfectly only to 
undercut its possibility as a solution. Surely the beauty of 
the scenery, the feel of open spaces and people far removed 
from the rush and tumble of New York City would justify a 
little poetic license with the plot. Instead the sweet dream 
of escape from responsibility functions as Lee's tribute or, 
perhaps, rebuttal to John Ford and his representations of 
the contlict between eastern dreams and western realities. 
I he coda to the film resists both amnesia for what has hap- 
pened and nostalgia for a time that never was and never 
will be. Instead I'lw 25^^' Hour embraces the difficulties of 
the present in order that the victims of 9/1 1 will not be for- 
gotten nor have died in vain. Fhe circle of globalization has 
closed; there is no open frontier. 

Despite the timidity of the film industry and its shabby 
failure to promote this film, I'lic 25^^' Hour is an invaluable 
contribution to .American cultural studies. By bearing wit- 
ness to the many facets and changes that have shaped New 
York City as a global city and local habitat for a new 
transnational awareness, Lee's films provide some of the 
only occasions for engaging viewers' social consciousness. 
We are made to look at the physical damage left behind in 
the wake of violence. As the first major director who had 
the courage to film the site of the 9/1 1 attack and weave the 
memory of that cataclysmic event into the everyday lives of 
his characters, Lee has at least made the point that the dev- 
astating change is real, that destruction has an unavoidable 
material dimension and that simulations of New York City 


off location are evading lived e.xperience. Lee's filmmaking 
process in this case offers us as important a view of the 
effects of globalization on the local realities of New Yorkers 
as the story itself. 

PHOTOS IN THIS ARTICLE ARE COURTESY OF DAVID LEE SMPSP 
©TOUCHSTONE PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 

Patricia O 'Neill teaches literature and film at Hamilton College 
in New York State. She is currently working on a book-length study 
of globalization's effects on film production, especially the repre- 
sentation of place. 

NOTES 

1 Saskia Sassen, Globalization and its Discontents, New York, The New 
Press, 1998. 

2 Paula Massood, "The Quintessential New Yorker and Global Citizen: 
An interview with Spike Lee", Cineaste, Summer 2003, 28: Online. 
LexisNexis Academic. 26 April 2004. 

3 james Saunders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, New 
York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, pp.4-6. 

4 Mary Louise Pratt, "Arts of the Contact Zone," Profession, 1991, 
pp. 33-40. 

5 Scott MacDonald, The Carden in the Machine: A Field Guide to 
Independent Films about Place, Berkeley, University of California Press, 
2001, pp.147-181. 

6 jonathan Romney, " Meanwhile, Back at the Centre of the Universe, 
Something Stirs", Independent on Sunday (London) 27 April 2003: 
Online. LexisNexis Academic. 8 May 2004. 

7 Peter Howell, "Spike Lee tries to hard to do the right thing", Toronto 
Star 10 lanuary 2003: Online. LexisNexis Academic. 28 April 2004. 

8 Mick LaSalle, "On borrowed time in 2Sth Hour", San Francisco 
Chronicle 23 May 2003: Online. LexisNexis Academic. 26 April 2004. 

9 LaSalle, 23 May 2003. 

10 Massood, 1 0 january 2003. 


cineACTiON 7 



The Politics of Hiccups 

NATIONAL CINEMA WITHOUT NATIONAL LANGUAGE 


BY ANIKO IMRE 

1 . The End of Eastern and Central 
European Historical Allegory 

Films from Eastern and Central Europe • are rarely 
discussed outside the national-cinema framework. 
They are reputed to have a unique regional sensi- 
bility: a tragic or ironic preoccupation with nation- 
al history permeates virtually every film made in 
the former Soviet Bloc. I his preoccupation takes a 
variety of aesthetic forms and ideological direc- 
tions, from realistic historical epics adapted from 
classics of national literature to "e.xistentialist" 
films, in which the historical background is project- 
ed onto the moral screen of the hero-protagonist.~ 
Films generally selected as representative of East 
and Central European cinemas during the Cold 
War, such as Andrzej Wajda's Ashes uinl Diunionds 
{Popiol I iliiinwnt, 1958), Miklos Jancso's Hie Red atni 
The White {Csillusosok, kiitotuik, 1967), Istvan 
Szabo's Mephisto (1980) or Jan Radar's The Shop 
Oil Miihi Street {Obchoii lui korze, 1965) all process 
traumatic moments of collective history in an alle- 
gorical language that projects the past onto the 
unspeakable, politically oppressive present, assuming 
a national audience eager and able to decode the 
Aesopean inscriptions. 

The end of the Cold War pulled the rug from 
under the Eastern and Central European tradition 
of allegorical filmmaking. Tragic and romantic 
heroes are out of place in the age of the triumphant, 
global postmodern, where no truth is taken for 


TOP: Hukkle^s animal kingdom 


granted, where identities and identifications proliferate well 
beyond the narrow confines of nationalism, and where the 
heroic is inconceivable without the ridiculous. The end of 
communist censorship, the end of the Manichean opposi- 
tion between oppressor and oppressed that had character- 
ized Soviet-type cultures rendered the Aesopean double talk 
superfluous. Changing conditions of filmmaking, distribu- 
tion, and exhibition have left East and Central European 
filmmakers and audiences in a state of confusion. However, 
after the initial shock over losing most of their state fund- 
ing and guaranteed domestic exhibition, most post-socialist 
film industries bounced back by the mid-nineties. 

The end of the Cold War made its mark on world cine- 
ma and film criticism as well, leaving both cold towards for- 
merly celebrated East and Central European national alle- 
gories. riiis loss of prestige has little to do with audiences: 
gloomy East and Central European films had only interest- 
ed select groups of film buffs outside of the region even dur- 
ing socialism; while, for the most part, they had lost touch 
with entertainment-starved, message-burdened domestic 
audiences long before 1989. Rather, w^hat became evident 
after the fall of the Wall w^as that the genre of national his- 
torical film had been partially propped up by Western festi- 
val critics themselves. In other words, it is likely that what 
had lent East and Central European films such a unique 
position in world cinema during the Cold War was not nec- 
essarily the aesthetic value of the films or the originality of 
the filmmakers but Western investment in the idea of 
'"good nationalism" - of nations firmly embedded in teleo- 
logical history united around the voice of the white male 
genius — a notion that East European filmmakers eagerly 
embraced and perpetuated themselves. 

I w'ish to contribute to the process of reassessing the 
validity of East and Central European national cinemas and 
their critical reception from the vantage point we have 
gained in the fifteen years since the end of the Cold War. 
My primary interest is in the transformation of the allegor- 
ical form vis-a-vis the East and Central European nation 
caught up in processes of globalization in every sphere of 
culture. I will first sketch out some disruptions and conti- 
nuities betw^*en the allegorical East and Central European 
film of the Cold War and films produced in the post-social- 
ist period. The rest of the essay will be devoted to the case 
study of a film that has creatively and successfully bridged 
the divide between old and new filmmaking traditions and 
audience expectations: Gybrgy Palfi's Hiikklc (2001). 1 am 
interested in how such a transition manifests itself in sever- 
al interrelated areas: film style, allegorical film structure and 
interpretation, the position of the artist-filmmaker, the 
complexities of the film's address and audience, and the 
post-Cold War conditions of production, distribution, and 
exhibition for Eastern and Central European films. 

My ultimate goal is to initiate in studies of film cultures 
wdiat has already occurred in East and Central European 
cultures on a larger scale: to remove their "unique" label 
and see w'hat the label has been protecting; to open up 
these transitional cultures to comparisons that question 
and critique the national. Such a perspective should con- 
tribute to determining whether "national cinema" is still a 


valid category at all; and, if so, how we should understand 
it in an arguably post-national, post-historical age. 

2. Transitional Voices 

It has become a central preoccupation for filmmakers and 
critics in post-socialist cultures to decide who is to blame for 
the miserable domestic reputation and box-office revenues 
of national films: filmmakers themselves, who, with few 
exceptions, have been producing titanic, navel-gazing film 
experiments since the late 1970s without concern for the 
audience, or the 'uneducated' public, who would rather 
consume the trash dumped onto European markets from 
the Hollyw'ood genre film machine than perform the patri- 
otic duty of w\itching national films.^ 

Several alternatives have been tried throughout Eastern 
Europe to break Hollywood's genre-film monopoly and 
attract domestic audiences to the theatres: a large number 
of, largely derivative, local or co-produced thrillers, come- 
dies and action-adventure flicks have tried to adapt the con- 
ventions of genre films to East and Central European con- 
ditions. The logic of these productions is predictable and 
justifiable. As a critic writes about Jaroslav Soukup's enor- 
mously successful Fricihl in the Ruin Part II - Story from 
Brooklyn (1992), the film has "as many neon lights, long- 
legged blonds, and men with ponytails as anything to come 
out of Hollwood. If the fact that the characters speak 
Czech (except when they're manifesting their hipness by 
speaking English) seems incidental, it's not. If the Czechs 
w^ant to watch Boily of Evidence instead of Howard’s End, bet- 
ter it be made in their own country where at least it keeps 
the studios working."** In a similar vein, the first Polish 
films of the transition that proved truly popular among 
native audiences were the comedy Controlled Conversations 
(Sylvester Checinski, 1991), and the action comedy Kroll 
(Wladyslaw Pasikowski, 1991). In Hungary, Eiiropa Express 
(Csaba Horvath, 1999), substituting Ukrainian Mafiosi for 
the customary Italian-Americans, guaranteed success just by 
virtue of being the first Hungarian action-adventure film, 
paving the way for other popular films such as the light 
slapstick comedy Out of Order (Andras Kern, 1997). 

The interest in national history has not waned, either. 
Jan Hrebejk carried on the aesthetic-political legacy of the 
Czech New Wave in films such as Divided We Fall (2000) 
and Pnpendo (2003). In recent Polish patriotic historical 
epics such as Pan Tadeusz (Andrzej Wajda, 1999), With Fire 
and Sword (Jerzy Hoffman, 1999), or in their more contro- 
versial Hungarian equivalent. The Bridge Man (Geza 
Beremenyi, 2002), crowd-pleasing spectacle substitutes for 
the justifying mission of national dissidence against the 
oppressive socialist regime. Such films, while professionally 
produced, can only be considered nostalgic, narcissistically 
wallowing in national despair or bathing in national tri- 
umph. But, even though such films have demonstrated 
masterful adaptation skills among new market conditions, 
bringing in significant revenues both domestically and 
internationally, they have hardly brought new voices to 
world cinema. In their effort to appeal to a nostalgic sensi- 
bility, they celebrate national history as entertainment and 
entirely gloss over the question of how to think of history 


cineACTiON 9 


and nation in a post-socialist, post-historical era. 

The film Hukkic, made by yoiins Hungarian director 
Ciyorgy Palfi, was Hungary's official entry in the 2002 com- 
petition for the Academy Awards in Best Foreign-Language 
Film and a festival success around the world. Not the least 
because of its success abroad, it attracted 25,000 viewers to 
the cinemas in Hungary. While this number is negligible 
compared to the number of people who go to see 
Hollywood blockbusters, it constitutes a welcome break for 
Hungarian films, widely considered among distributors a 
cultural mission at best since the days of government fund- 
ing ended.'' Palfi unites stylistic innovation and self-reflec- 
tivity with a concern for reaching audiences. He pitches the 
film to an international audience of film buffs, among 
whom many Hungarian and other East European viewers 
are glad to find their place. 

llukkic's "new voice", with its surprise effect on native 
and international viewers, seems to hinge on the fact that it 
creates a kind of continuity between the before and the 
after that goes deeper than subject matter, stock characters, 
or aesthetic solutions. Rather, its enigmatic mi.\ of tones 
and genres resonates with people's e.xperience of confusion 
during the transition from national to global affiliations. 

3. Genre-Mixing 

Fhe difficulties of describing Palfi's film begin with the title. 
"Hukkle" is an onomatopoeic word that imitates hiccups. It 
belongs to the Hungarian language no more than it does to 
any other one. Hiccups take on a life of their own in the 
film, providing a steady digestive rhythm that moves the 
plot along and structures its various elements. Fhe old man 
who performs the hiccups is an inhabitant of the 
Hungarian village where the film takes place. The wrinkled, 
toothless, silent old man is less of an independent character 
than a medium through whom the movie's heartbeat is 
made audible to the viewers. None of the other humans - 
mostly actual village dwellers in the actual Hungarian vil- 
lage of Ozora — have speaking roles or narrative functions 
that would invite identification. The camera observes them 
with the same uninhibited and bemused curiosity with 
which it observes the local fauna and flora - a dying cat, 
which turns into a disintegrating carcass and then a pile of 
sun-dried bones in front of our eyes; a mole's underground 
journey to the surface— filmed from the animal's point of 
view— where it is killed by a hoe and tossed to a dog to eat; 
an underwater sequence about a frog swallowed by a cat- 
fish, which, in turn, gets caught on a fishing hook and sub- 
sequently consumed by a human, whose digesting body is 
penetrated by X-Ray-like shots as he eats; a gigantic pig 
repeatedly strolling down the street looking for mates; or a 
white flower growing and blooming in an artificially accel- 
erated process. 

Thus, there is a documentary impulse at work, which 
seems to accomplish two generically different projects in 
one: a nature show in the manner of the Discovery Channel 
or Microcosnios {Micmcosnws: Lc people ile I'herhe, C'laude 
Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, 1996), and a village 
ethnography. The latter continues the venerable tradition 
of Hungarian literary ethnography, which was carried on by 


ethnographic documentary films throughout the socialist 
era. "Village films," that is, realistic fiction films set in a 
rural environment, have come to constitute a veritable East 
European genre.*' Films such as Wajda's The IVmh Wooil 
{Brzeziim, 1970), Zanussi's Fiunily Life {Zyeie roiizinue, 1971), 
Laszlo Ranody and Gyula Meszaros's Nobody's Dousihter 
{Anthskii, 1976), Peter Bacso's The Witness {A tnnii, 1969), 
Zoltan Fabry's Merry-Go-Round {Korhintu, 1956) or Jiri 
Menzel's Mr Sweet Little Villose {Vesnicko nid strediskovd, 
1985), in their different ways, all use the village setting to 
communicate something about the peculiar provinciality of 
life in Eastern Europe in general. 

As Dina lordanova argues. East and Central European 
cities have evolved under different historical conditions 
than West European metropoles; the former remained fair- 
ly small, intimate and isolated, devoid of the class divisions 
and typically urban problems of West European cities.^ 
While the filmmakers' approaches to the provincial back- 
waters range from sympathetic humour {My Sweet Little 
Villose) to depicting the village as the ultimate e.xpression of 
desolation devoid of humanity (Bela Farr's Soton's 
Tonso/Sdtdntonsd, 1994), in most "village films" villagers 
hold up a mirror to the intellectual urbanite. Fhey are used 
as allegorical characters through whom the city-dweller is 
able to represent - often even critique — himself. If we look 
at this mechanism through the analogical dynamic of colo- 
nization, we inevitably need to ask if village films commit 
representational violence against the unsuspecting vil- 
lagers, who are most often presumed to live sub-intellectu- 
al, even sub-human, emotionally impoverished lives. 

Questions of representational violence have rarely been 
asked of East and Central European films. It is fair to ask 
Palfi why he chose a small village for the setting of Lhikkie, 
a film which barely credits its voiceless amateur actors, 
while obviously addressing a cosmopolitan audience. Fhe 
spectacular photography and manipulative editing, cater- 
ing to viewers whose sensibilities are shaped by television 
and digital media, are offset by the almost complete lack of 
dialogue. People in the village are not shown using the 
national language to communicate. Fhere is a rich sound- 
track, but it is entirely made up of amplified, often artifi- 
cially created noises - doors slamming, animals moving, a 
garbage truck making its rounds on dirt roads, or flowers 
growing. Fhe film foregrounds the technical manipulation 
of image and sound - most shockingly in a special-effects 
sequence at the end of the film, in which an American 
fighter plane swoops under the local bridge causing a minor 
earthquake in the village. The documentary effort, then, is 
rendered unreal, or hyper- real, by underscoring the use of 
state-of-the-art surveillance and simulation technology. 

The film's official website (www.hukkle.hu) further 
extends the film's address to the technologically sas^y and 
playful by inserting credits, a shooting diary, and informa- 
tion about the director and the cast within clever, interac- 
tive visual games positioned against shadow-puppet-like 
stock images of a generic village: the stork, the house, the 
bench, the pond. One can move around the circular site 
horizontally, arriving at the same spots again and again 
with no apparent escape, emulating the cruel, imprisoning 


10 cineACTiON 



ll 

'l 

I ' 


I 


I 



Gendered play in East European cinema: My Sweet Little Village. 


rhythm of life in the filmic village. As one navigates the 
site, a human-hand icon appears from hiding to reveal 
information, which emerges from the stork's beak, from a 
half-empty bottle, or from under the roof of a house. This 
gives us an interpretive clue as to the filmmaker's purpose 
for the village setting: it is a puppetry set; a place that allows 
for the allegorical manipulation of formulaic, simple 
images. Phis also makes one wonder where the real action 
is. What goes on behind the simulated shadows? 

In addition to visual ethnography, allegorical village 
film, nature show, and what a critic calls the current 
international mini-genre of subtitle-free, deliberately 
"quiet projects,"” there is also a thriller element: one by 
one, the men of the village mysteriously disappear. It 
seems that the murderers form a dark conspiracy of vil- 
lage women, who use the extract of an innocent-looking, 
lily-like white flower as deadly poison. Thus, the film also 
functions as a HolK^ood genre film infused into a 
European art film, somewhat like a documentary in 
David Lynch's style. I he viewers are motivated by narra- 
tive suspense to figure out why the murders occur and 
how the film will end. I he village policeman, whose 
father is murdered by his own mother, takes on the role 
of the audience stand-in, the detector. I his helps main- 
tain the audience's suspense, even though one suspects 
that, in a film made up of such disparate generic ele- 
ments, there is no final answer in the end. Yet, even if 
there is no single key to the puzzle, there is a certain alle- 
gorical coherence to this "film style game" or "artistic 
experiment", as the director calls it on the website. 


I he appeal of the film, 1 believe, is to be found in the 
fact that it successfully taps into and replicates the experi- 
ence of a transition from an order embedded in the relative 
safety and isolation of the national community to a fright- 
ening but also liberating global order. In this new w^orld, 
community can only be reproduced virtually, from a variety 
of camera angles, manipulated by digital technology and 
sophisticated editing; and the national language is muffled 
under a combination of noises that obliterate the difference 
between organic and artificial. I bis experience is at once 
subjective and collective, aesthetic and political, abstract 
and visceral. Hie film represents all these levels at once as 
interconnected, eliciting an emotive interpretation that 
exceeds the usual auteurist, national-cinema categoriza- 
tions of East and Central European film criticism. 

Unlike most other films of the transition, wiiich either 
continue clinging to the familiarity of national history or 
bypass national allegory altogether in favour of the con- 
ventions of genre cinema developed elsewhere, Hukkic 
draws on and merges both alternatives under its allegorical 
umbrella, much as they merge in people's daily experiences. 
The village is a frozen image of the past, a memory of the 
idealized national community that, the film's ironic dis- 
tance and painstakingly constructed realism imply, may 
have never existed in the first place. Watching the old man 
sit on a bench in front of his house all day, men playing 
leisurely bowl games in the street, or a shepherdess tending 
to the herd, are reminders of a world about to disappear or 
already nostalgically staged for the tourist's camera. The vil- 
lage as allegorical tableaux mobilizes local reflexes of an 


cineACTioN 11 


older, typological kind of reading familiar from the Cold 
War, prompting the audience to decode an abstract film 
language that masks a politically unutterable message. But 
this expectation gets sidetracked and undermined by the 
expectation of reading a Hollywood genre film: who is com- 
mitting the murders and why? The allegory that emerges 
from these two, typically contrasting expectations exposes 
its structural self-contradiction: the fact that allegory both 
satisfies the need for thinking in essentialist binary opposi- 
tions (a didactic function) and calls attention to the artifi- 
ciality and instability of such binary oppositions (a perfor- 
mative function). 

4. A Post-Socialist Allegory 

Allegory is a complex term that can equally refer to a genre, 
a trope, or an interpretive approach. Hiikkle's allegorical 
structure not only evidences this complexity but also pro- 
vides a platform for arguing that allegory has been under- 
stood reductively, limited to its didactic function, in rela- 
tion to Bast and Central European film cultures. Most inter- 
pretations of East European films during the Cold War 
insisted on reducing allegory to its Romantic, typological 
understanding, which assumes a transcendental authority - 
in this case, the nation - and a transparent interpreter, who 
is outside of politics - in this case, the intellectual/artist. 
The latter is presumed to have absolute faith in and unlim- 
ited access to the truth of a sacred text - national history, 
rhis approach ignores the structural paradox that post- 
structuralist thinkers such as Paul de Man and Jonathan 
Culler identified at the heart of allegory in a post-Romantic 
world: a contradiction between allegory's goal (to articulate 
something ideal and atemporal) and its medium (language, 
which unfolds its time, through a linear progress of signifi- 
cation).^^ This contradiction results in a permanent tension 
between allegory's didactic and performative functions. 
Allegory's investment in what de Man calls the "rhetoric of 
temporality" means that it is inherently involved in writing 
history; it is at the heart of the discursive struggle over his- 
torical authority. 

East and Central European literary and cinematic alle- 
gories produced during the Cold War, however, remained 
largely fossilized in their typological form, effacing the act 
of interpretation and the interpreter's subjectivity. I'his crit- 
ical reduction persisted even in relation to the playful, self- 
referential postmodernist aesthetic forms that accompanied 
the political thawing of the 1970s and 1980s. In Hungary, a 
large number of filmmakers and other artists renounced the 
lofty, tragic purpose of opposing communism and acknowl- 
edged, instead, the intellectual's/interpreter's inevitable 
cooptation within the system, or claimed an (untenable) 
apolitical status.* • The uncertainty that surfaced within the 
allegorical form of these postmodernist texts, however, 
stopped short of questioning the nation's essential 
Europeanness and the intellectual's privileged mediatory 
role in maintaining this Europeanness. In the Hungary of 
the 198()s, this resulted in films that sustained the privi- 
leged status of national cinema and continued to rely on 
the support of the nation state, despite the fact that they 
had renounced the responsibility of representing, sympa- 


thizing with, or in any way reaching out to "the people." 
Such films became allegories of struggling intellectuals who 
arc not appreciated enough by their native audiences and 
provincial states. As a result, Hungarian films became 
increasingly disconnected from national audiences, 
addressing a small circle of like-minded intellectuals, regis- 
tering their class crisis in a world of compromise. 

While Anglo-American post-structuralist theory takes 
allegory to be the ultimate trope for discourse itself, *2 such 
a radical conception is inadequate for understanding tran- 
sitional East and Central European film cultures without 
analogical insight from theories of postcoloniality. As Reda 
Bensmaia argues, in post-Independence cultures, allegory 
was initially called upon to legitimate the unity and sacred- 
ness of the new nations. However, the postcolonial disillu- 
sionment with the ideals of national independence and the 
compromised creative power of the postcolonial intellectu- 
al brought about an aesthetic shift, which foregrounded the 
gap between the pedagogical and performative functions of 
allegory, and acknowledged the crisis of the hermeneutic 
stability of national history and national allegory. As a 
result, Bensmaia claims, it is no longer possible to read 
rhird World allegories as "self-righteous and predetermined 
discourses on good and evil, on the pure and the impure, 
on true and false identity, on the glorious past scorned by 
colonialism . . 

The shift from "politically committed" allegorical films 
produced by politically traumatized East and Central 
European artists to contemporary films characterized by a 
"post" consciousness is analogical in structure to the trans- 
formation of post-Independence allegories, lb understand 
what terms like "politically committed" efface - the inter- 
pretational uncertainty of allegorical narratives - we should 
remind ourselves of the Althusserian tenet that history is 
not a text, not a narrative, but an absent cause, and, like the 
l.acanian Real, is inaccessible, except in a form mediated by 
what Fredric Jameson calls the political unconscious. In 
Jameson's sense, the prevalent way of interpreting East 
European allegories would qualify as a "weak interpreta- 
tion," that is, the kind of ethical criticism that perpetuates 
certain moral codes without questioning them on the 
authority of some metaphysical thought - in this, case, 
national history, which sutures national subjects into the 
near-religious bond of nationalism. Such interpretations 
essentially collaborate with nationalism and freeze the sta- 
tus quo that benefits a small group both in Eastern Europe 
and abroad. By contrast, "strong interpretation," or rewrit- 
ing, takes into account a process of mystification and 
repression at work.*** llukkle goes farther than most recent 
East European films in demystifying nationalism, but - 
much like Bensmaia's post-Independence, self-deconstruc- 
tive allegories — it still has registers that go beyond con- 
scious intention and remain accessible only through 
"strong" interpretation. 

5. Consumption and Gendered Conspiracy 

Similar to the way in which Reda Bensmaia wishes to re- 
read Algerian allegories as narratives that are not about a 
place of history, but, rather, about a place becoming, to be 


12 cineACTiON 


made, (rc)writtenj^’ one senses an impulse in liitkkle to 
minimize the importance of national history. The film does 
not speak on behalf of a suffering nation, or even of a free- 
dom-deprived intellectual class. It still occupies the position 
of a national film by virtue of being produced in a small, 
dependent country, which is necessarily represented to 
other cultures as well as to itself through allegorical simpli- 
fications. As Stephen Slemon argues, the “Manichean mas- 
ter code" continues to operate in the world of neo-colo- 
nialism through fixed oppositions that allow the "coloniz- 
er" to read the "other" as fixed in a permanent position of 
subordination. >7 But the observer in Hukkic remains emo- 
tionally distant from its objects, even when those objects 
are inches away from the camera. Apart from his mocking 
visual and acoustic humour, he remains invisible and indif- 
ferent, offering no invitation to identify or sympathize with 
its world of creatures. 

riie film depicts an indifferent universe, in which people 
are caught up in a universal and natural process of con- 
sumption. Or, conversely, the film hints that it is possible 
that even "nature" exists primarily as a set of manipulated 
images and noises, as a subject to be transformed by audio- 
visual technology and served up for human consumption. 
There is nothing apparently tragic about this all-consuming 
digestive rhythm in the way Nazi persecution or 
Communist trials were in earlier films. While universal con- 
sumption is undeniably linked with death and murder, no 
one in the film shows any sorrow, remorse or, indeed, any 
emotion. After the urban grandchild who is visiting 
Grandma dies from accidentally licking poisoned food, his 
parents and grandparents follow the little coffin to the 
cemetery with the same vacant expression that they had on 
during the fatal dinner. Animals are shown killing and eat- 
ing one another as a matter of course, as a natural function 
of their position in the food chain. A sense of alarm arises 
only from realizing that people murder one another with 
the same indifference. I hey blindly follow the logic of con- 
sumption like zombies, forgetting even to speak, their last 
link to humanity. Indeed, the only dialogue we hear in the 
film is on TV, as the investigating policeman's mother 
watches a Latin-American soap opera, creating a metaphor- 
ical connection between indifferent consumption and the 
spiritual death brought on by commercial media. 

The horror of media consumption is a familiar theme in 
recent world cinema and popular culture. In one of 
Viticotlroine's (David Cronenberg, 198.3) most memorable 
scenes, for instance, the television set becomes a giant vagi- 
na-lip ready to swallow the gullible and curious male pro- 
tagonist's head. Neither is the juxtaposition of food and 
decay stunningly new, especially if one thinks of 
Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) and The Cook, 
The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989). On the East 
European terrain, Jan .Svankmajer's recent films come to 
mind: Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), a surrealist treatise 
about murder and consumption, and Little Otik (2000), in 
which a folk character, the insatiable tree-root baby-monster, 
comes alive to eat his entire family. But Hukkle offers a spe- 
cific local variation on the allegory of murder-by-consump- 
tion by placing it in the context of a silent, zombie-like 


Hungarian village, where there is an evident gender distribu- 
tion at work: the murders are all committed by women 
against men. Most reviews of the film avoided tackling the 
gendered nature of this conspiracy. It is precisely this silence 
about gender that indicates that this may be a systematic 
silence, which hides the least consciously processed register 
of the film, and which takes a "strong reading" to break. 

Women in the village feed and nurture, as they also 
gather, hunt and kill. Men, on the other hand, play, fish, sit, 
sleep, are fed by women or are taken by them to see the doc- 
tor. Women appear strong and determined, while men seem 
invariably feeble. This reverses the traditional gender struc- 
ture that all nationalisms depend on, where men are the 
active agents and women the passive bearers of tradition, 
an unequal distribution that defines the scope and space of 
action for each sex.'” East Central European nationalisms 
have preserved the traditional hierarchy of gender roles in 
an especially rigid form. What docs HukklCs provocative 
reversal of these roles have to do with nationalism or con- 
temporary post-socialist societies? 

Since men appear idle, frail, dependent, and often plain 
repugnant - with the arguable exception of the policeman, 
one of the few male survivors — the women's frustration 
with them seems fully justified. We watch the shepherdess 
return to her house after a day's work and wake up three 
men of various ages, who are all sleeping in one bed for no 
apparent reason, as they do not appear sick or invalid. We 
watch her perform a thankless and mind-numbing chore: 
heating up leftover stew and doling out portions to the 
men. Her only consolation is in the headphones that con- 
nect her to a media world of sounds somewhere on the out- 
side. An old woman, whom we identify in one of the very 
first scenes as the gatherer of the poisonous white flowers, 
nurtures a vegetating husband. We watch her silently kill 
and pluck a chicken and prepare a meal for her urban visi- 
tors. After she serves her guests, she puts the rest of the din- 
ner into a blender and purees it into mush that the old man 
is able to swallow. First, however, she puts a few drops of the 
mysterious white liquid into his drinkable meal. Another 
man returns from his day of poaching to a disheveled house 
full of females — a wife and five daughters. I hey watch hun- 
grily and resentfully as he eats his dinner alone, while the 
camera surveilles his digestive action through a penetrating 
X-Ray-like shot. The medical association connects this 
scene with one in which women accompany their pale and 
emaciated husbands on a visit to the local doctor. Fhe wives 
stand in the waiting room while the men sit; yet we know 
from previous scenes that they know more than anyone 
else does about the men's sickness. 

rhe allegorical register of this gendered conspiracy is 
fairly specific to the conditions of the East Central 
European transitions. It sensitively reflects on the fact that 
the transitions have undermined traditional masculinities 
which were sanctified, precisely, by nationalism, and were 
grounded on a strict gendered division between public and 
private labour. Ehe crisis of nationalism under pressure 
froFii global economic and cultural influences set in motion 
a crisis of masculinity, which unleashed a conservative 
backlash directed primarily against "strong" career women 


cineACTiON 13 


who defy naturalized gender hierarchies and take on public 
responsibilities at the expense of motherhood. This drama 
has played out along similar lines in every post-socialist 
country, culminating around contentious issues such as 
abortion, women's parliamentary representation, and vari- 
ous social policies affecting women. I'he F.uropean Union's 
recommended policies of gender equality have significantly 
aggravated gendered social tension. In media depictions, 
women's recent empowerment has often been represented 
as a voracious appetite with sexual overtones, as a hunger 
to consume products, positions, and men. At the same 
time, men's anxiety over recognizing that consumption is 
feminizing the nation and that taken-for-granted "nation- 
al" manhood has fractured into various performances of 
masculinity has been represented as the disappearance of 
"real men."*‘' 

Before we conclude that Hukkie is making a feminist 
statement, however, we should remember the fact the 
women in tlie film are not represented as simply pow^er- 
ful; they are monstrous murderers. They act like automa- 
tons, as if they w^ere programmed by an invisible remote 
control. If the irresistible mechanism of global consump- 
tion that has come to replace more familiar forms of polit- 
ical oppression is the ultimate evil in the film, consump- 
tion is also linked with evil femininity. It is women to 
whom most advertisements are addressed; they are the 
allegorical agents of the new order, empowered and 
turned active criminals by the power channeled through 
them by media globalization. Feminists such as Ann 
Douglas and Fania Modleski have persuasively contested 
the hierarchical conceptual opposition between passive, 
feminine consumption and active, masculine production, 
and have detected a masculine bias in the association 
between mass culture and femininity. 

Such an association, while relatively new in Fast and 
Central European representations, is also fuelled by a gen- 
dered class anxiety about the loss of European high art's 
prestige. Palfi's eclectic, genre-mixing aesthetic strategy 
seems to resist the elitist hegemony of ideal meaning. 
Fiowever, what is passive and corruptive about global mass 
culture is isolated in the film as part of a female regime, ren- 
dered in feminine images. Palfi's strategy is similar to 
Baudrillard's, w^ho, Tania Modleski argues, describes the fem- 
inized masses as a "gigantic black hole" outside of language, 
meaning, representation and politics while he celebrates the 
revolutionary potential of mass culture. Similar to woman in 
psychoanalysis, Modleski writes, the masses can no longer be 
spoken for, articulated, represented in the collapse of sociali- 
ty, the end of both the public and the domestic sphere, 
which characterizes Baudrillard's model of simulation.^* 

1 he metaphysical aspect of female monstrosity is not to 
be ignored here. Fhe film's flirting with Hollv'wood genres 
encourages associations between the poison-brewing 
female conspiracy and the figure of the witch, a recurring 
representative of the monstrous feminine in horror films. 
Where exactly the source of power is in the new order of 
media globalization, if there is such a centre, is only hinted 
at. Fow'ards the end of the film, the hiccups suddenly stop 
and the earth begins shaking. The apocalyptic moment is 


brought on by an American fighter plane wiiich, according 
to the script, is coming from the nearby American army 
base of Faszar. While the film does not claim that the 
women are agents of a specifically American kind of media 
imperialism, the local interpretation would make the link 
unmistakable in the East Central European intellectual cli- 
mate of intense anti-Americanism. 

Whose anxieties underlie the apocalyptic vision of a 
feminine conspiracy against fragile men in a world wiiere 
consumption, vaguely associated with the US, replaces 
communication? What docs the policeman realize after 
the plane charges under the village bridge in a striking 
special-effects phenomenon? In the last scene of the film, 
the policeman sits, exasperated, at a wedding table, as the 
camera pans around to reveal a young, indifferent bride 
and an oblivious, older groom, and we hear a chorus of 
village women sing a song about being orphaned— the 
only other instance besides the TV scene where human 
language is uttered in the film. What is behind the con- 
spiracy of village women, this least explicit and most con- 
fusing layer of the allegory? 

Conspiracy is a common trope in East and Central 
European films, which carry on a Kafkaesque cultural her- 
itage of experiencing modernity as an imprisoning universe 
with inscrutable rules. Unlike in The Tr'uil, Colonel Red!, and 
a host of other East and Central European texts, however, in 
Hnkkle there is no hero; and conspiracy is an almost justifi- 
able alliance of hard-w^orking women who otherwise do not 
appear threatening at all. The kind of feminizing conspira- 
cy that the film represents through an alliance of women 
has more to do with that in Videodrotne, The Trumon Show, 
or The Mntrix, where human subjects do not know that they 
arc used, rendered passive, are being force-fed an electronic 
diet that divests them of communicative agency, and 
freezes them in spiritual death. But even in the latter two 
films, there is hope for redemption, for an escape back to 
reality. Hnkkle conveys anxiety about conspiracy in the 
much larger sense that, as Fredric Jameson argues in The 
Ceopohticiil Aesthetic, constitutes the logic of the emerging 
system of postmodernism.— The film represents a transi- 
tion from the Manichean, typological allegory, itself draw- 
ing on the Central European experience of existential anxi- 
ety captured by Kafka, to an allegory of the national that 
can no longer think of itself as authentic, truthful, isolated 
from global postmodernism. 

The oscillation between the national and the global as 
primary conceptual and emotional frameworks ot identity 
is represented in Hnkkle as emasculating. The film's allegor- 
ical structure makes figurable a certain gendered class con- 
sciousness specific to Eastern Europe: that of intellectuals 
who are forced to redefine their earlier taken-for-granted 
role; who have suddenly slipped behind the economic elite 
in the social hierarchy, arriving at the position that West 
European and American intellectuals occupy. 

6. A New Voice? 

Symptomatically, non-Hungarian reviews focused on the 
unresolved murder mystery, missing or ignoring the film's 
allegorical registers altogether, while Hungarian analyses 


14 cineACTiON 



were unable to read the film as other than national allego- 
ry with a universal existentialist dimension. The author of 
a Hungarian review notices the fact that women systemati- 
cally kill men as “female spiders devour males" but, in inter- 
preting this pattern in relation to a larger social context, he 
dissolves the gender difference he had just identified with- 
in the old national "we," which he automatically extends to 
"humans" caught up in the struggle for survival. 

The film's unconventional soundscape provides the 
most intriguing clue to the film's formal and political con- 
tradictions. Kast ITiropean viewers and fans of F.ast 
F.uropean cinemas worldwide will recognize the national 
artist's effort to create something "authentic and 
autonomous," qualities that, critics repeatedly lament, are 
hard to come by in the derivative land of post-socialist cin- 
emas. A Hungarian critic, in his evaluation of the less-than- 
stellar film crop of the late 199()s, declares that in order to 
create free and autonomous artistic fiction, one needs 
"absolute hearing." In Hukkic, the modernist-romantic, 
masculinist urge to flaunt the genius's super-human hear- 
ing is tamed by a degree of humility before the new, all- 
devouring black hole of postmodern media capitalism. 

1 he film's use of sound bites is characterized by this 
ambiguity between hubris and humility. Do the sound 
effects create true, progressive heteroglossia in the 
Bakhtinian sense of socially generated contradictions, 
which constitute the subject as the site of competing dis- 
courses and voices?--* Is the purpose of privileging sounds 
then to suppress the modernist gaze, associated with the 
claim to authenticity? Or does the emphasis on the tech- 
nological manipulation of noises and images create a 
"pseudo-polyphonic discourse" in the manner of televi- 
sion commercials?-*' Does bypassing human language 
mean renouncing the truth-seeking effort of historical 


films as it does, for instance, in Lutcho Droni (1993), Fony 
Gatlif's film about Romany history told entirely in musical 
vignettes? Does Palfi's listening subject assume historical 
"response-ability" instead of the grudging historical 
responsibility of the national artist called on to reify an 
abstract truth?-*' Does Iain Chambers's description of the 
postmodernist, listening subject describe the viewer 
addressed by Palfi's film? 

In the dispersal of a single History, whose omniscient 
word legislates the world, I begin to hear composite 
voices crossing and disturbing the path and patterns of 
the once seemingly ineluctable onrush of 'progress'. In 
the movement from concentrated sight to dispersed 
sound, from the 'neutral' gaze to the Interference of 
hearing, from the discriminating eye to the incidental 
ear, I abandon a fixed (ad)vantage for a mobile and 
exposed politics of listening — for a 'truth' that is always 

becoming.27 

The politics of listening remains ridden with ambiguity in 
the film. The act of listening is foregrounded, hut the "speak- 
ing" human subjects remain silenced, objectified. Many of 
the noises are generated by the playful filmmaker himself. 
Whereas many films of the 1980s were enwrapped in explic- 
itly male intellectual experiences of compromising with 
oppressive powers, in the world of Hukkic, the artist hides 
behind the allegorical, silenced character of an old villager. 
But the structural contradiction of the allegorical form fore- 
grounds the ambiguity of his mission: analogical distance 
from the character also implies the recognition of similarity 
to the character. Fhe artist, no longer sponsored by the state 
and justified in his role as the romantic voice of the nation, 
is feminized by a culture that forces him to promote and sell 



Lily-gathering: herbal medicine Hukkic: the hiccuping old man 

or deadly conspiracy in Hukkic? 






Hukkic: the investigator 



himself with audio-visual tricks and clever websites. 

Rev Chow's reading of Kin^ of the Cliihlreii (Chen Kaige, 
1987), based on a novel of the same title by the Chinese 
writer A Cheng (1984), sheds analogical light on the gen- 
dered plight of the national artist. In the film, a young man, 
Lao Gang, comes to an isolated, rural school to be a school- 
teacher — much like Palfi's invisible urban observer, the 
director's alter ego, gains access to the life of Ozora. Both 
films are concerned with the struggle of the intellectual 
class for self-definition among hostile circumstances. In 
both cases, this class redefinition is short-circuited by what 
Cdiow' calls the narcissism of the male intellectual. Chow 
redefines the psychoanalytic description of narcissism, 
which Freud primarily applied to female patients, as "an 
effect of cultural marginalization or degradation". She 
argues that Lao Gang bypasses the se.xuality represented by 
actual women in favour of "men's play," the male child, 
and a bond with nature. Like many other characters in con- 
temporary Chinese film and literature, he is self-absorbed, 
passive, and thus "feminine," characteristics that Chow 
reads as symptoms of the symbolic impotence of Chinese 
male intellectuals, who are reluctant to perform their 
national duty of symbolic cultural procreation in post- 


Cultural-Revolution Chinese culture. 

Chow's analysis applies to post-Soviet Last Central 
Luropean intellectuals by analogy. The intellectual's loss of 
pow'cr is more complete and self-conscious in Hitkkle than 
in Kinx of the Children or in earlier Last Central Luropean 
films, howxner. Lao Gang idealizes nature and actively 
rejects women, evoking a form of solidarity with the view- 
er. Chow argues that there is power to be gained from 
observing powerless male figures. "If the construction of 
national culture is a form of empowerment, then the pow- 
erless provides a means of aesthetic transaction through 
which a certain emotional stability arises from observing 
the powerless as spectacle. This statement casts doubt on 
the hiding artist's use of unsuspecting villagers in his intel- 
lectual, allegorical film. But it is questionable whether the 
power gained from observing the powerless evokes solidar- 
ity and nurtures the illusion of a national community. 

The community that Hnkkle addresses is the audience of 
international film festivals. While it would be too bold to 
claim that the film provides a new' model for post-socialist 
filmmaking, it brings a new kind of energy to the world 
cinema scene because it is uninterested in categorizations 
such as "national" or "regional" w'hile it continues ways of 


16 cineACTiON 



King of the Children 



filmmaking and philosophical trends rooted in local tradi- 
tion. Its innovation is in incorporating various genres and 
conventions in a meaningful blend, which foregrounds the 
coexistence of the familiar fear of totalitarianism and a more 
postmodern, shapeless fear of global conspiracy. If Htikkic is 
a model for tast I’uropean filmmaking, it is one in that it 
abandons (mixes) both routes that post-socialist filmmaking 
has followed in the last fifteen years: neither does it contin- 
ue to lock film production in high modernist art, nor does 
it cynically satisfy audience desires for entertainment. 
Perhaps most important, its innovative combination of 
styles and philosophies and fresh response to shifting post- 
socialist experiences call for a similarly flexible critical-theo- 
retical attitude able and willing to rethink how to address 
East and Central European films. 

Aniko Imre is a postdoctoral researcher at the Amsterdam School 
of Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam, completing a book 
about post-socialist identities in relation to medio globalization. Her 
writings have appeared in Screen, Camera Obscura, Framework, 
and other publications, and she is the editor of the forthcoming API 
collection. East European Cinemas in New Perspectives 
(Rout ledge). 


NOTES 

1 Geographical designations have escaped classification since the end of the 
Cold War; most of my remarks in this writing refer to the area that includes 
Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, and Poland. 

2 See Dina lordanova. Cinema of the Other Europe. London: Wallflower Press, 
2003. pp. 47^8. 

3 Some examples of this debate are Akos Szilagyi, "Tajkep Filmszemie utan." 
("Landscape After the Annual Film Review." Filmvilag 40.4 (April 1997), pp. 
4-8; Balazs Varga, "Kiildn utakon." ("Different Ways.") Filmvilag 42.5 (May 
1999), pp. 10-12; Klara Muhi, "Yuppie-k legyiink vagy szabadok?" ("Should 
We Be Yuppies or Free?") Filmvilag 42.5 (May 1999), pp. 4-7. 

4 Katharine F. Cornell, "After the Wall: Eastern European Cinema Since 1989." 
Cineaste 19.4 (1993), p. 43. 

5 Molnar, Balint. "Magyar Filmes Marketing". ." ("The Marketing of Hungarian 
Films.") http://www.magyar.film.hu Accessed 3/1 7/2004. 

6 See Dina lordanova. Cinema of the Other Europe, London: Wallflower Press, 
2003, pp. 102-106. 

7 Ibid, p. 105. 

8 Neil Young, "Hukkie." 
http://www.jigsawlounge.co.uk/film/hukkle.html. 

9 Madsen pp. 140-145 

10 Stephen Slemon, "Post-Colonial Allegory and the Transformation of History." 
The journal of Commonwealth Literature 21.] (1988), p. 158. 

1 1 In Gabor Body's films or in a number of experimental films produced in the 
Bela Balazs Studio in Budapest. See Lorant Stbhr, "Mire, mire valo ez a 
fejiesztes?" ("What is, what is this development for?") 
http://www.magyar.film.hu/archiv. Accessed on March 17, 2004. Andras 
Forgach, "A kesoromantika eloerzete." Filmvilag 39.2 (1996): pp. 4-7. 

12 See Slemon, p. 57; Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading; Joel Fineman, "The 
Structure of Allegorical Desire," October 12 (Spring 1980) 

1 3 Reda Bensmaia, "Postcolonial Nations: Political or Poetic Allegories?" Research 
in African Literatures 30.3 (Fall 1999): p. 153. 

14 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. 
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. p. 35. 

15 Ibid, p. 59 

16 Bensmaia p. 163 

17 Slemon pp. 161-162. 

18 See, for instance, Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and 
Sexuality in the Colonial Context. London: Routledge, 1995. 

1 9 See, for instance, Galambos K. Attila, "Ndi vonalak." Filmvilag 42.7 (1 999), pp. 
22-23; Zsofia Mihancsik, "A lathatatlan nem: Magyar ndk filmen." Filmvilag 
47.7 (1999): pp. 16-21; Cranney, Brenda et al., eds. Woman in Central and 
Eastern Europe. Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la femme 16.1 (1991); 
Eisenstein, Zillah. "Eastern European Male Democracies: A Problem of Unequal 
Equality." Gender Politics and Post-Communism. Eds. Nanette Funk and Magda 
Mueller. New York: Routledge, 1993. pp. 303-330; Berry, Ellen E., ed. Post- 
communism and the Body Politic. New York: New York UP, 1995; Coven, 
Joanna, "Gender Politics in Hungary: Autonomy and Antifeminism." in Funk 
and Mueller, Gender Politics and Post-Communism: Reflections from Eastern 
Europe, pp. 224-240. 

20 Tania Modleski, "Femininity as Mas(s)querade." In her Feminism without 
Women: Culture and Criticism in a "Postfeminist'' Age. New York: Routledge, 
1991: pp. 23-34; Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture. New 
York: Knopf, 1977. See also len Ang and Joke Hermes. "Gender and/in Media 
Consumption." Mass/Media and Society. Eds. James Curran and Michael 
Gurevitch. London: Edward Arnold, 1991: pp. 307-328. 

21 Modleski pp. 31-32. 

22 Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World 
System. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. See especially pp. 9-35, including a 
detailed discussion of Videodrunw. 

23 Attila Solyom, "Zajok szimfoniaja" ("Symphony of Noises"), Filmkultura. 
http://www.filmkultura.hu/2003/articles/films/hukkle.hu.html. Accessed on 
March 1 7, 2004. 

24 See Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism. London: Routledge, 
1994. pp. 215 and 315. 

25 Ibid 

26 lain Chambers, "Signs of Silence, Lines of Listening" in Chambers and Lidia 
Curti, eds.. The Post-Colonial Question. London and New York: Routledge, 
1996, p. 51. 

27 Ibid. p. 51. 

28 Rey Chow, "Male narcissism and National Culture: Subjectivity in Chen Kaige's 
King of the Children." Male Trouble. Ed. Constance Penley and Sharon Willis. 
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. p. 109. 

29 Ibid, p. 1 1 1 

30 See Aniko Imre, "Central European Culture Today and the Problematics of 
Gender and Poetry." Comparative Cultural Studies and Central European Culture 
Today. Steven Tdtosy, ed. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2001 : pp. 
71-90. 

31 Ibid. p. 109 


cineACTiON 17 


Two Stories^ One Rights One Wrong 



NARRATIVE, NATIONAL IDENTITY AND GLOBALIZATION IN SLIDING DOORS 


BY DAVID MARTIN-)ONES 

SHiHiis Doors (Peter Howitt, 1997) was one of several films to emerjL^e in the late 9()s that 
shouted two or more versions of the same narrative. It presented alternate incarnations of 
its protagonist, Helen/Ciwyneth Paltrow as though they existed in parallel universes. Yet, 
despite its slightly unusual dual narrative, the way in which .S7/d///x Doors constructs nation- 
al identity is hardly original. It uses its tw^o versions of the same story to offer two 
contrasting views of national identity in 9()s Britain, and asks the viewer to choose between 
them. Should we be in any doubt as to which is the "correct" narrative outcome, the choice 
is clearly signposted for us by the film. In fact, this device is really only a variation on clas- 
sical narratives like Its a Wotnlcrful l.ifc (Frank Capra, 1946). As Frank Krutnik‘ has shown, 
in Capra's film, a specifically weighted choice was offered to American servicemen returning 
from WWII. National identity was allowed two possible routes, either a return to the small 
town values of Bedford Falls (the "right' outcome), or the soulless noir landscape of 
Pottersville (the "wrong" outcome). 

However, although it uses the same technique, SlUiins^ Doors strongly advocates an iden- 
tity that is far more globally oriented than national. Despite emerging at the time of devo- 
lution in Britain (the establishing of separate parliaments in Scotland and Wales) the film 
is far less concerned with the splintering of British national identity than it is with the 
relationship between London and the rest of the world. SliiliiL^ Doors, then, uses its multi- 
ple narrative structure to explore the changing face of British national identity after the 
development of London as a global city. In fact, by mapping the "right" and "wrong" ways 
of living in the global city the film proffers an image of a new, tninsnotionnl identity in post- 
devolutionary Britain. 

This work will illustrate the various ways in which Sliilin^ Doors uses its multiple narrative 


structure to otter its biased choice of identities, especially 
through the use of crosscutting, soundtrack, montage 
sequences, flashback, two contrasting genre styles, two 
alternative personifications of Paltrow's star persona, and 
an allegorical use of heterosexual gender roles usually asso- 
ciated with female makeover films. An analysis of these 
techniques will illustrate the ways in which the alternatives 
they create have been carefully chosen to coincide with the 
film's political agenda. It will he seen that, beneath its 
apparently playful "Cinderella in the labyrinth of time" 
narrative, SIWnis Doors asserts that it is actually the eco- 
nomic conditions provided by the global city that offer the 
chance of a new identity. Its multiple narrative structure 
therefore functions as part of a more general renegotiation 
of national identity in contemporary Britain, a renegotia- 
tion brought about by the changes globalization has 
wrought on the nation, and especially its capital, over the 
last twenty five years. 

I will conclude by briefly examining the same process in 
two other such films. Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) and 
Too Many to be Niunber One (Wai Ka-Fai, 1997). This 
will also enable a reconsideration of David Bordwell's recent 
attempt to group together these and other multiple narra- 
tive films, based solely on their formal similarities. 

British Cinema 

At this point a brief plot synopsis is in order. 5//<////x l^oors is 
the story of Helen, a young woman living in London, 
whose identity splits into two separate paths through time. 
After arriving at work one morning to discover that she has 
been fired from her job in public relations, Helen attempts 
to return home on the London Underground. In one story 
she catches the train, hut in the other, she misses it. The rest 
of the film is concerned with her two simultaneous exis- 
tences. In one incarnation the Helen that catches the train 
returns home to find that her boyfriend, Jerry/John Lynch 
has been cheating on her. She leaves him, and rebuilds her 
life, aided by James/John Hannah her new love interest. 
Helen meets James on the tube which her other self failed 
to catch. After an initial makeover in which she has her hair 
cut short and dyed blonde, this Helen becomes a successful 
business woman, running her own PR company. In her 
other incarnation the Helen that misses the train remains 
ignorant of Jerry's infidelity, and is forced to work in two 
rather menial jobs, as sandwich deliverer and waitress. She 
remains completely unaware of the existence of James. For 
brevity I shall refer to the two incarnations as those of 
blonde and brunette Helen. 

.S7/d///x Doors has already attracted some critical atten- 
tion. Two of the most recent edited collections on British 
cinema, Rritish Cinema in the 90s, and British Cinema Past 
and Present, contain a number of chapters discussing British 
cinema's recent renegotiation of representations of nation- 
al identity in post-Thatcherite, and now, Blairite Britain. “ 
Several theorists emphasize how the changing face of the 
British economy (from an industrial-manufacturing, to a 
services base) has been examined in cinema. Subsequently, 
numerous films of the nineties are explored in order to 
uncover exactly what has happened to our sense of the 


nation in such a context. As Sliding Doors is a typical film in 
this respect, it does not pass without comment. Moya 
Luckett, for instance, states that: 

... Sliding Doors indicates that national identity requires 
some "authenticity', despite its ultimate endorsement of 
glamour, the superficial and the magical. After all, 
Gwyneth Paltrow is American, and despite her appear- 
ance in films like Emma ... and Shakespeare in Love as the 
"quintessentially British" heroine, her star image under- 
mines her authenticity. Consequently, Sliding Doors” 
attempts to find the truth of the nation rest on sup- 
porting characters who all have strong regional Identi- 
ties (James is Scottish; Helen's best friend Anna is Irish; 
and her two-timing fiance, jerry, is played by Irishman, 
John Lynch). This leaves a vacuum at the centre of the 
nation: in a London where there are no native 
Londoners. This suggests that national identity is always 
elsewhere, a paradox that seems to be echoed in the 
current efforts of audiences to find the nation In the 
images of British cinema.^ 

In films like Sliding Lh)ors, any sense of a unified nation has 
dissipated into the image of a regional assembly of identi- 
ties, apparently constructing a national identity so far "else- 
where" that it encompasses nearly all of the newly devolved 
countries of the United Kingdom, and even the Republic of 
Ireland! If we are looking for a traditional sense of "British" 
identity in Sliding Doors, Luckett's work suggests, it is 
unlikely that we will find it. Nor is the influence of global- 
ization on this recasting of the nation lost on these con- 
temporary writers. Claire Monk, for instance, points out 
that many British films of the nineties aim to, "promote a 
global perception of Britain as a competitive and innovative 
enterprise economy, thus enhancing its industrial prospects 
in a global capitalist free market."-* The reason for the lack 
of Londoners in the London of Slidin\i Doors, then, can be 
seen to he primarily due to the swing from an industrial- 
manufacturing to a services based economy, and to the 
nation's subsequent attempts to sell itself anew in the glob- 
al market place. 

However, whilst the above debate functions as an 
informing backdrop to this essay, 1 contend that the "vacu- 
um at the centre of the nation" observed in recent writings 
on British cinema is also indicative of a slightly different 
view of London contained in Slidinx Doors. This apparent 
absence is only seen as such if we persist in searching for 
images constructive of a recognisable, British national iden- 
tity. If we alter our focus somewhat, and engage with the 
film's portrayal of London as a global city, then rather than 
an absence of national identity, we find instead the pres- 
ence of a slightly different type of identity. As we shall see, 
the film's multiple narrative structure, and the choices it 
offers, is crucial in negotiating this changing conception of 
national identity. 

London: Global City 

As a film based in London, Slidinx Doors exists in relation to 
a great many other films set in the capital over the last 


cineACTiON 19 



twenty-five years. It has particular resonance, however, 
when viewed in relation to a small number of other films 
that represent London's role in the global economy. 
Perhaps the most well known precedent in this respect is, 
The Lon\i Gooii Friday (John Mackenzie, 1979). Here plans to 
redevelop London's Docklands with the help of financial 
investment from America (plans that went ahead under the 
Conservative government during the 198()s) are represent- 
ed in the form of an allegorical gangster thriller. In this case, 
the troubles in Ireland are seen as the major barrier to such 
a development of the capital, with the American mafiosi 
backers pulling out due to the IKA bombing campaign. If we 
flash forward to the late 199()s, however, the echoes of IRA 
bomb blasts have been replaced in films like Sliding Doors, 
by the gentrified splendour of a post- Fhatcherite London. 
Here the changes seen to be immanent in The Lon\i Good 
Friday have been implemented, the services economy is in 
full swing, and British foreign policy in Ireland takes a back 
seat to the selling of a Blairite vision of London. 

In fact, Sliding Doors is not alone in its focus on London 
as the physical realization of the nation's identity. Several 
other recent British films have depicted London's services 
industry as the answer to the decline of communities in var- 
ious parts of the north of Lngland. Billy Elliott (Stephen 
Daldry, 2()()()), for instance, illustrates the move from one to 
the other in extremely unproblematic terms. The future of 
its protagonist is assured, despite the ruination brought to 
his Northern community by the closure of its coal mine, in 
his move to London to study ballet. Coming as it does after 
the rather more critical stance on London of two of its 


immediate predecessors, Traimpottiu^ (Danny Boyle, 1995) 
and Brassed O/f (Mark Herman, 1996), the upbeat ending of 
Billy Elliott has much in common with the late 9()s, New^ 
Labour-styled spin on centralized national identity that is 
also seen in films like Sliding Doors and Nottiti^ Hill (Roger 
Michell, 1999). 

In this context, the dual narrative of STulhi^ Doors is par- 
ticularly telling. Its tw'o stories illustrate the right and the 
wrong ways to live in this new' global city. It maps the 
spaces of London, providing two alternate routes to a suc- 
cessful, and an unsuccessful, lifestyle in the global city. In 
this way the new' "do's and don'ts" of "national" identity 
are played out as a choice between two different, economi- 
cally defined classes, rendered as lifestyles. This can be seen 
in more detail w ith reference to some sociological evidence. 

In The Global City, Saskia Sassen describes the economic 
situation facing the inhabitant of the global city as one polar- 
ized by the emergence of the services industry. She states: 

Major growth industries show a greater incidence of 
jobs at the high- and low-paying ends of the scale than 
do the older industries now in decline. Almost half the 
jobs in the producer services are lower-income jobs, and 
half are in the two highest earnings classes. ... other 
developments in global cities have also contributed to 
economic polarization. One is the vast supply of low- 
wage jobs required by high income gentrification in 
both its residential and commercial settings. The 
increase in the number of expensive restaurants, luxury 


20 cineACTiON 



housing, luxury hotels, gourmet shops, boutiques, 
French hand laundries, and special cleaners that orna- 
ment the new urban landscape illustrates this trend.^ 


This is exactly the polarity between the high and the low' 
paid sectors of the producer services economy which is 
explored in the double narrative structure of .S7/(////x Doors. 
On the one hand, blonde Helen maintains her position 
within the higher end of the income bracket. With a start- 
up loan from the National Westminster bank she sets up her 
own PR consultancy firm, and establishes herself as a self- 
employed member of the global city's elite. Working in pub- 
lic relations she provides a lucrative producer service, one of 
several that is increasingly common due to the global city's 
centralization of the service industry in London.^ Moreover, 
her first major contract is the opening of James" best friend 
Clive's gentrified, riverside, "expensive restaurant". I'his 
choice of location is used to illustrate both the opportuni- 
ties available to service industry workers like blonde Helen, 
and the possibilities that exist for the high income workers 
of the global city to establish their identity through the 
demonstration (one might be forgiven for saying, the pur- 
chasing) of good taste.^ In the global city, wt are shown, the 
right economic choices lead almost inevitably to the con- 
sumption of the lifestyle enjoyed by blonde Helen. 

Brunette Helen, by contrast, is reduced to a position of 
subservience to the more highly paid end of the producer 
services industry. Unable to find a job for which she is qual- 
ified, her only option is to take a lower level w'age as a wait- 
ress. Thus the film locates her in one of the many low w'age 
jobs that the proliferation of expensive restaurants necessi- 


tates. In order to make ends meet moreover, she finds that 
she needs two jobs, as the cost of living in the global city is 
so high. To this end she takes the position of sandw'ich 
deliverer. This is yet another type of occupation on the 
increase in the global city, again due to the increase in 
demand brought about by population intensive, high 
income "residential and commercial gentrification".” The 
film drives home its message, that this need not be so, and 
that brunette Helen could enjoy another lifestyle altogeth- 
er if she so desired, by situating her in the same sandwich 
shop that she used to frequent when she was herself 
employed in the commercial business district. 

rhe film's split narrative, then, creates a binary that rep- 
resents perfectly the division betw^een the "haves" and 
"have-nots" that now exists in the global city. This is a sit- 
uation, the paralleling of these narratives suggests, in which 
it is just as easy to be one as it is to be the other. Nowliere 
is this message more apparent than in the montage 
sequence which intercuts between blonde Helen overseeing 
the opening of Clive's restaurant and brunette Helen wait- 
ressing in a different, but comparable restaurant. The film's 
crosscutting between these locations is accompanied by 
jamiroquai's "Use the Force", the upbeat lyrics of which 
include the lines, "I must believe ... 1 can be anyone", and, 
"I know Tm gonna get myself ahead", identity in the glob- 
al city is what you make it, the film stresses, the financial 
support structures are in place for anyone wishing to be 
their own boss, and the services industry provides sufficient 
opportunity for a wealthy, glamorous lifestyle. 

Flashback 

The film's self-conscious play witli time is used to empha- 
size which of the tw'o choices it considers to be the "right" 
one. In particular, its use of flashback is integral in creating 
this bias. 

Although the two incarnations of Helen are kept sepa- 
rate throughout the majority of its narrative, they arc final- 
ly brought into contact at the end. Ihe conclusion sees 
both Helens involved in serious accidents and taken to hos- 
pital, w'here blonde Helen dies, and brunette Helen sur- 
vives. As blonde Helen dies, brunette Helen has a flashback 
in which she sees three distinct images of the city. These 
are, the bridge on wliich she and James made-up just prior 
to the accident, the American style diner w'here they first 
went on a date, and, finally, the train on which they first 
met. The existence of these displaced memories within the 
universe of brunette Helen suggests a very peculiar action 
that is taking place concerning the construction of identity 
in time. Their presence can be explained using I^eleuze's 
theory of the labyrinth of time. 

Deleuze developed his labyrinthine model of time part- 
ly through his exploration of Henri Bergson's concept of 
duration in relation to cinema,*^ and partly from the writ- 
ings of Jorge Luis Borges. Of the labyrinth Deleuze states, 
"the straight line as force of time, as labyrinth of time, is 
also the line which forks and keeps on forking, passing 
through itjcottipossihle presents, returning to, not-necessarily 
true The labyrinthine model is perhaps easiest to 

understand as the existence of an infinite number of virtu- 


I 


cineACTiON 21 


al, parallel universes. In these universes are played out the 
myriad possibilities of every different fork taken through 
the labyrinth of time. Each bifurcation of the pathway 
through the labyrinth leads to two ‘hncompossible pres- 
ents", two possible, and possibly contradictory, outcomes to 
any one situation. I’his is not, however, a parado.x, as the 
potential for both outcomes always exists virtually, and are 
always both played out, albeit in different universes, in 
their respective actual forms. 

Anyone gaining an intuition of their existence in this 
labyrinth of time will, according to Bergson, "compare him- 
self to an actor playing his part automatically, listening to 
himself and beholding himself playing".* • Should this per- 
son attempt to change their identity in the present a differ- 
ent path through the labyrinth of time will open up before 
them. As a consequence, or more accurately, sinmltiuwously, 
their past becomes contingent - based upon the actions 
they perform in the present - or, to put it another way, "//uZ- 
iwccssurily true”. 

riiis labyrinthine sense of self can be applied to the curi- 
ous happenings of the film's ending. The memories of 
blonde Helen's life which brunette Helen experiences are a 
representation of the past that she might have had. The 
appearance of these memories allows her to make decisions 
for her future based upon a past which now becomes con- 
tingent, or not necessarily true. At this point she sends Jerry 
away, armed with a new resolve based upon memories from 
the past of her blonde self, and becomes determined to 
jiiake the past a different story. Ihese events suggest a 
labyrinthine realigning of time for brunette Helen, from the 
present, backwards. I his is evident in the order in which the 
places occur in the flashback she receives (from bridge, to 


diner, to train) as though blonde Helen's story line was run- 
ning backwards to the point at which they initially split 
when boarding the tube. 1 bus brunette Helen's past is re- 
aligned with that of blonde Helen with the arrival of her 
memories. Brunette Helen, realising that the past which she 
has lived is not-necessarily true, acknowledges through her 
actions in the present that many possible pasts exist, and 
that she is one of many incarnations of her labyrinthine self. 

I his labyrinthine self is further reinforced by the events 
that accompany brunette Helen's departure from the hospi- 
tal. As she meets James for the first time in her brunette 
incarnation, she correctly finishes his Monty Python catch- 
phrase for him, that which, in her blonde incarnation she 
had incorrectly presumed would be: "Always look on the 
bright side of life". In the quirky world of 9()s man, James, 
however, it turned out to be: "Nobody expects the Spanish 
inquisition". Her knowledge of James" quirk illustrates that 
she is now fully in touch with her other past, and has the 
abilitv to manufacture a future for herself that will make the 
past that was, not necessarily true. 

It would initially appear from this reading that it is the 
labyrinth of time that actually provides the magical quality 
necessary for brunette Helen to learn from the memories 
she receives from the dying blonde Helen. Yet this 
Deleuzian take on the film is only half the story. In fact, the 
labyrinth of time is used by Sliilins Doors as something of a 
McGuffin. It initially suggests that blonde Helen's success is 
due to her chance meeting with James, the point at which 
fate causes her life to split in two. However, her rise to suc- 
cess in the global city is actually shown to be the result of 
the choices she makes after this chance encounter. Thus, 
whilst the city is depicted as a space where the chance for 


Sliding Doors: jerry, soon to be just a bad memory. 


success exists in a way that suggests an initial similarity 
with tile labyrinth of time, the film ultimately argues that 
success in the global city is not actually determined by fate, 
but by the actions of those who, like blonde Helen, make 
their own chances. 

With this view of the film in mind, the flashback at the 
ending of the film appears much more obvious in its 
intent. It is not solely an exploration of the possibility of 
self-creation offered by chance in the labyrinth of time. 
Rather, the gentrified bridge, diner and tube station of 
blonde Helen's memory are the film's most direct expres- 
sion of the map of London that it advocates for a success- 
ful life in the global city. 

Star Maps 

Ihe map offered by the flashback ensures that blonde 
Helen's narrative is promoted as the route to success in the 
global city. 1 his map, moreover, is aimed at the two differ- 
ent audience demographics present in the cast of this 
Anglo-American co-production. These are, both the 
devolved Britons of the late nineties, and the international, 
but specifically, east coast, trans-Atlantic viewer, riirough 
the characters it portrays, and the audiences it targets, then, 
the film is able to refigure national identity in late 90s 
Britain as a meeting of the global and the local. 

In its recourse to the regional cast of characters, the 
ensemble that led Luckett to conclude that the nation was 
"elsewhere", Srnliiisi Doors appeals to Britain's devolved 
provincials, be they from the beleaguered ex-manufacturing 
communities of the North of England, the newly devolved 
nations of Scotland and Wales, or even from neighboring 
Ireland. If you wish to enjoy life in the global city, it illus- 


trates, your identity does not have to he established 
through interaction with an English, or even a British, 
national past. According to Sliilinsi Doors, identity in 
London is no longer determined by its status as national 
capital, rather, it is a city with links, and more importantly, 
with an identity, that hails from "elsewhere". Indeed, as the 
Irish and Scottish characters show through their interaction 
with the American star, Paltrow, the global city is almost a 
postmodern fantasy space in which all national pasts are 
somehow forgotten. Moreover, through Paltrow, the film's 
Blairite vision of London also aims at the American market. 
The Aiiierican star's presence is used to court an interna- 
tional viewer who may be persuaded to visit, or even to 
relocate, to London. In these ways, and in order to appeal 
to these audience demographics, national identity is thus 
refigured as a nexus of the global and the local. 

To further its appeal, SHiHnhi Doors firmly locates blonde 
Helen's narrative in certain newly gentrified parts of 
London. I’hese settings offer a vision of the global city that 
performs both as advertising for the lucrative tourist mar- 
ket, and as a sales pitch to the transnational worker, 
lourism has been one of London's "fastest growing service 
indust ries"J“ since the early 8()s, both increasing the 
demand for such services as the expensive riverside restau- 
rant, and, consequently, increasing the number of people in 
part-time, semi-permanent jobs at the lower end of the 
income scale (e.g., those waitressing in these restaurants). 
Hie film illustrates, then, both the consequences of tourist 
revenue for would-he global city workers (that they can 
either get a lot of it, or very little of it, depending on the 
economic route they follow) and, to the would-be tourist, 
exactly what is on offer to the holiday-maker in London. 


Sliding Doors: Helen and james, New London's global elite. 



However, the tourist images that we see in .S7/J///X Doors 
are not the typical tourist image w’e have come to expect of 
London based films, even though these images are still 
prevalent in several other contemporary films. For instance, 
the establishing shots of Trafalgar Square and the merry 
pearly kings and queens so beautifully satirized in 
Troinspottiii^ are noticeably absent. In this case, the film 
does not aim to sell what is specifically different about 
London, Its culturally specific tourist attractions, its history 
or its heritage. Rather, it focuses on those aspects that estab- 
lish London as comparable with other global cities. What is 
sold is not cultural specificity, or a sense of an exotic 
national identity peculiar to Fngland, but rather, the 
lifestyle of the young, tnuisnotionul professional of the glob- 
al city. It is for this reason that the film goes out of its way 
to choose locations that demonstrate the overhaul that 
occurred in London during the 198()s and 90s. From Its 
expensive restaurants to its converted w^aterfront warehouse 
bars, the film reassures the international viewer, there are as 
many amenities here as can be found in any other global 
city. It is also for this reason that the native Londoners, the 
authentic identity of manufacturing Britain are "elsewhere" 
in this film, their authenticity being contrary to the image 
of "anywhereness" that a global city needs to represent. 

Fhe two different views of Gvsyneth Paltrow's star per- 
sona that the film offers are also used to illustrate the 
changing face "national" identity in transnational London. 
Whilst entirely accurate, Luckett's point, that Paltrow's star 
status undermines any sense of authenticity she might 
bring to her role as a young Englishwoman, is actually not 
in any way detrimental to the film's aims. In fact, as 
Christine Geraghty has shown, the multiple narrative of 
Doors can be viewed as an expression of the added 


qualities Paltrow's star status enables her to bring to her per- 
formance of an English woman. Geraghty notes that, as 
brunette Helen, Paltrow conforms to the "manners, 
restraint and control"*^ we would expect of an English lady 
in a heritage film. However, as blonde Helen she brings her 
star status to the role as w^ell, adding a touch of what is con- 
ventionally thought to be American glamour. Fhe differ- 
ence between the two performances can similarly be seen to 
represent the difference between a pre- and a post- 
Thatcherite sense of identity in London. 

As Geraghty points out, Paltrow's transformation is most 
evident in the montage sequences where "we are invited to 
look |at| rather than listen" to Helen. Gf these sequences, 
the decoration of her new office is perhaps the most inter- 
esting in its selling of the city's spaces through Paltrow 's star 
status. In this elliptical sequence, whilst painting the walls 
of the office, blonde I lelen is depicted in a series of swx\iters 
(grey-green and blue) that match the emerging decor she 
paints. Thus Paltrow's transformation, from dowdy English 
woman to glamorous American star is reflected back at her 
from the very walls of the city. This interaction suggests at 
once the transformation that has occurred in London over 
the last tw'o decades with the influx of American money, 
and, once again the possibilities of self-creation that the city 
makes possible. Paltrow^'s transformation thus serves as an 
allegory for the transformation of London, from dowdy 
English lady, to the American style "dame"*'’ of the global 
city. For this reason, the lack of authentic, English characters 
in Sliiiin^ Doors bears witness less to the "elsewhere" of 
national identity in the services economy, than it docs to the 
transformation of London's identity that it has facilitated. 

Paltrow's star persona is also a direct draw' because it has 
become associated with London's nearest neighbouring 



24 cineACTiON 


A touch of American glamour, Paltrow as global New Yorker In The Talented Mr Ripley. 



global city, New York. Due to her New York upbringing and 
her portrayal of several New York based characters, she is 
rapidly becoming synonymous with a certain, elite, east coast 
breed of American, l-or instance, around the same time as 
Doors Paltrow played characters in several films set in 
New York, including Ctreot Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron, 
1997) and A Perfect Miinler (Andrew Davis, 1998). Since Stilling 
Doors the link between her own cultured New York upbring- 
ing and the characters she seems best suited to playing has 
become more explicit. In The Talented htr. Ripley (Anthony 
Minghella, 1999), for instance, she plays wealthy Park Avenue 
socialite on extended vacation in Europe, Marge Sherwood. 
Similarly, in The Royal Tenenhaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) she 
plays languid upper east side intellectual, Margot. 

rhe multiple narrative is used to show that the correct 
way to live in the global city is to follow the entrepreneur- 
ial life led by blonde Helen. Hers is the lifestyle that match- 
es that of Paltrow's star persona. The incorrect way to live, 
by contrast, is the dowdy life of unhappy, brunette Helen, 
whose aspect clearly clashes with Paltrow's star persona. In 
the "right" narrative, Paltrow most clearly fits in with the 
film's view of London. In the "wrong" one, as Cieraghty's 
work suggests, brunette Helen represents a more tradition- 
ally "English" sense of identity, and as such is a little out of 
touch with the glamour of the new^ global city. Finally in 
this respect, the presence of American actress Jeanne 
Tripplehorn, playing the other major female character, 
serves to further emphasize the normality of American pro- 
fessionals working in London's commercial centre. After all, 
her character, Lydia, is able to move effortlessly between 
jobs in London and America. 

Melodrama vs Romantic-Comedy 

rhe fact that the corporate video package of blonde Helen's 
successful narrative is sold as a romantic-comedy (as 
opposed to, as David Bordwell notes, the melodrama of 
the dowdier story of brunette Helen) only serves to make it 
all the more seductive. I he presence of James in blonde 
Helen's narrative ensures that her transformation into a 
successful businessw^oman is all the more appealing by con- 
flating entrepreneurial success with a successful romance, 
rhe ending of the film is, once again, exemplary in this 
respect. I he final flashback portrays not only the econom- 
ic route to blonde Helen's success, but also the narrative of 
her romance with James. I he images recap their meeting on 
the tube, their first date in the diner, and both their first kiss 
in the shadow of, and James" declaration of love on, the 
bridge. James, in fact, is the catalyst behind most of the life 
changing decisions made by blonde Helen. It is he w ho first 
suggests that she start her ow n company, he who show^s her 
how the leisured lifestyle provided by London's new, gen- 
trified, riverside pubs and restaurants can be enjoyed, and 
he who introduces her to Clive, whose restaurant opening 
furnishes her first contract. Without James" influence, 
brunette Helen, the control version of this lifestyle experi- 
ment, remains a relative nobody. 

Phis story of a woman's makeover falls within a tradition 
that includes such films as Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954) and 
Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990). In these films the 


power behind the makeover is often showm to be the finan- 
cially astute man lurking in the background. Whilst this is 
also true of Slulins Doors, its representation of gender roles 
is still illuminating in wiiat it illustrates about its context. 
For instance, as Dina M Smith demonstrates of Sabrina, 
the romance plot of many Cinderella films function as thin- 
ly veiled political allegories. In the case of Sabrina, the love 
affair between rags to riches Sabrina/Audrey Hepburn and 
corporate tycoon Linus Larabee/Humphrey Bogart stands in 
for Europe's makeover by American investment in the post- 
war period. In SHiiin\; Doors by contrast, the extra dimension 
to the rom-com narrative is added by the gendered repre- 
sentation of London's services economy as the blonde and 
brunette incarnations of Helen. 

With Britain's manufacturing industry previously coded 
as masculine in such iconic British films as Satunlay Ni\tht 
anil Sinnlay Mornin:^ (Karel Reisz, 1960), it was little surprise 
that the emergent services industry, w'ith its emphasis on 
administrative and clerical professions, would come to be 
represented as feminine. It w^as, after all, to address the cri- 
sis of traditional notions of masculinity caused by this shift 
in emphasis that so many British films of the nineties dealt 
with men adapting to this new^ environment - e.g. Hrasseii 
Off, The Fall Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) and Rilly Elliott. 
For this reason, wiiilst films like Billy Elliott go out of their 
way to reassure the audience of its protagonist's masculini- 
ty as he enters the feminizing environment of the services 
industry, STuiinx Doors deliberately foregrounds the femi- 
ninity of the young professional in the global city. Here the 
female protagonist represents not only the growing number 
of women working in the service industry, but also the serv- 
ices industry itself. Whilst blonde Helen shares the same 
reliance on her man as the female leads of Cinderella films 
like Sabrina and Pretb' Woman, as a representative of the 
services based economy the film uses the influence exerted 
on her by James to stress that the powder behind this indus- 
try is, whilst still patriarchal, not in any way as interfering 
as it was when the manufacturing economy w'as booming. 

Noticeably, blonde Helen's romance with James only 
really blossoms once they are on level terms career-wise. In 
new' London, their romance illustrates, the entrepreneur 
may want to be prompted in the direction of the small busi- 
ness venture, as Helen is by James, and they may w'ant to 
make use of their contacts in the services industry, as Helen 
does of James" friend Clive. However, they do not have to 
act unless it is in their own interest. I hus the ideal man in 
Slhiin^ Doors acts as a metaphor for the style of government 
under which the global city of London has emerged in the 
last twenty years. He is a supportive, but not commandiiig 
influence over the small businesswoman. 

It is worth remeFiibering, how'ever, that the image of 
national identity offered by the "right" narrative of STulin^^ 
Doors is not unique amongst British films of the late 9()s. 
For instance, due to its desire to sell an up-market image of 
the global city, the casting of Sliilin^ Doors depicts a white- 
washed London that denies its ethnic and racial complexi- 
ty. Fhis is the same racially suspect gentrification of the 
population that is also seen in Nottin\i Hill. As though tak- 
ing its cue from Sliiiiii^ Doors, Nottin^ llilPs depiction of the 


cineACTiON 25 



nation through its regional characters (the henevolent 
English shopkeeper, the Irish thief and the Welsh dimwit) 
again speaks as much of a nationless identity in the global 
city as it does of devolved "British" national identity. 
Moreover, through its vision of a I.ondon in which even the 
most fusty of travel bookstores is fully equipped with the 
latest security cameras, and where all parks have been trans- 
formed into locked, private gardens, Hill repre- 
sents a very similar London to that of SHi1in\i Doors. Indeed, 
its final image, of a contented, pregnant Roberts rela.xing in 
her private park, illustrates much the same use of the star as 
draw which Slulin;^ Doors creates through I’altrow. What sets 
Sliilin^i Doors apart from its British contemporaries, howev- 
er, is the way its multiple narrative structure appears to offer 
this view of national identity as though it were a choice 
that the viewer has come to of their own accord. 

Conclusion 

During the late 90s several others films emerged with a dual 
or triple narrative structure. These included, from Hong 
Kong, loo Miiny U'tzr.s to be Number One {Vat \toh chi ton ilik 
ilihin Sony), the German film. Run Loin Run (Loin Remit), the 
I rench-Australian co-production. Me Myself I (Pip Karmel, 
1999), from France, Eponse Moi (Harriet \tarin, 20()()), and 
from America, The Enmily Mon (Brett Ratner, 2()()()). At pres- 
ent the only attempt to analyze these recent films as a genre 
is David Bordwell's article, "Film Futures." Citing as prede- 
cessors such literary works as Charles Dickens" A Ohristmos 
Corol, and O. Henry's short story "Roads of Destiny", 
Bordwell concludes that it is "folk psychologs', the ordinary 


processes we use to make sense of the world"-** that deter- 
mines the simplified nature of these narratives. Bordwell 
then proceeds to outline seven of the "strategies character- 
istic of certain traditions of cinematic storytelling"-' that 
have been used to shape the narratives of films like Sliilin^ 
Doors. Most importantly for this work is the fifth category, 
"Forking Paths will often run parallel",-- in which he notes 
that the conventional use of parallel plots is brought to the 
fore in these multiple narrative films. As we have seen in rela- 
tion to Sliilin^ Doors, it is primarily through this use of paral- 
lelism that the choice between national identities is created. 

However, although Bordwell's article is extremely useful 
in the way it pulls together films from such diverse con- 
texts, his approach leads him to some rather ahistorical 
conclusions regarding the way their narratives function. In 
fact, Bordwell's focus on genre characteristics ensures that 
he never really gets to grips with the complex intertwining 
of class, gender and national identity that occur in these 
multiple narratives films. As we have seen in SHilin\^ Doors 
the various narrative devices Bordwell identifies are used to 
construct its biased choice of national identities. 

Indeed, all these multiple narrative films can he seen to 
create a choice of national identities, with the choice ren- 
dered differently each time, depending on the context from 
which the film emerged. Although there is not room here 
to go into any great detail, two brief examples can illumi- 
nate how different national contexts can create different 
manifestations of this same process. If we consider Rim Lolo 
Run and Too Mony IV'uy.s to be Number One, although they 
both use their multiple narratives to tell two or three differ- 


26 cineACTiON 


cnt stories, they offer very different choices, due to the spe- 
cific contexts of their respective productions. 

Too Many Ways to he Niinihcr One was produced in 1997, 
the year Hong Kong was handed hack to China after one 
hundred years as a British protectorate. The two stories it 
offers, of a possible future on mainland China (in which the 
protagonist dies) and of a more successful trip to freemarket 
raiwan (where he doesn't), illustrate the dilemma faced by 
the population of Hong Kong at this historical juncture. In 
this respect it is a film that could be productively analyzed 
alongside Isiii 1 lark's Once Upon o Time in Chino series, John 
Woo's gangster films of the 8()s and early 9(3s, and numer- 
ous other films like Hoot People (Ann Hui, 1982), Kon\i, 
1941 (Liang Puzhi, 1984), and Homecoming (Van Hao, 1984). 
As critics like Julian Stringer-^ and Li Cheuk-to--* have 
shown, these films use different characters to examine the 
pros and cons of staying or leaving Hong Kong after the 
handover, a device which Too Mony Woys to he Nnmher One 
extends to its multiple narrative either/or. 1 hus, although 
its multiple narrative does offer the typical choice of 
national identities that characterizes the genre, due to its 
context of production this choice does not have the same 
emphases we find in Sliiliti^ Doors. 

Ron Lolo Ron, for its part, shares similarities with both of 
the above, hut again it plays these out in a slightly different 
way due to its context of production. Like SliiTm^^ Doors it 
also sees national identity as a choice between private 
enterprise (figured here as gambling and black market 
smuggling) and an outdated reliance on the nation (here 
represented by an unsupportive father/banker). However, 
this time the city is not seen to be internationally connect- 
ed through a netw'ork of global cities, hut through the glob- 
al rave culture already associated with Berlin's annual tech- 
no festival. Moreover, like both the above films, Ron Lolo 
Run also functions in much the same w^ay as many other 
films from its national cinema. .As Eric Rentschler notes, 
many such post-Wall films of the German Cinema of 
Consensus have been criticised for avoiding, "the messy 
complications of post-w^all reality, thematics like right-w ing 
radicalism, chronic unemployment, or the uneasy integra- 
tion of the former GDR into the Federal Republic."-'' Run 
Lolo Run similarly denies the existence of any such prob- 
lems, and instead provides a unifying vision of Berlin. I bis 
effect is most obviously achieved through Lola's running 
figure, which links together affluent areas of the old West 
Berlin wMth strategically chosen areas of newly gentrified 
Last Berlin.2^' Instead of addressing national differences, its 
multiple narrative illustrates the supposedly right and 
WTong ways of obtaining commercial success in the capital. 

All three films, then, use their multiple narratives to deal 
with changes to national identity brought on by a recent 
de- or re-unification. How'ever, they all do so slightly differ- 
ently. STulinsi Doors emphasizes the global/local nexus of 
identity in London in order to avoid the problems of post- 
devolutionary Britain, Too Mony Woys to he Nnmher One 
speculates on the possible ramifications of the immanent 
reunification with China, and Run Lolo Run denies the fail- 
ure of a newiy unified present to deal with the recently 
divided past. As wx* have seen from these examples, films in 


this emergent genre all share the same characteristic, of 
using the multiple narrative structure to offer a biased 
choice between different national identities. Howxver, the 
way in which this manifests itself is different in each film. 
For this reason, further approaches that attempt to group 
these films together as a genre should also consider the 
wMys in w hich they differ, due to the different national con- 
texts from w hich they emerged. 

Dr. David Martin-Jones is Lecturer in Film Studies at St Andrews 
University, Scotland. He is currently writing a book on Deieuze and 
national identity in time travel narratives. He has articles on 
Scottish Cinema forthcoming in The Journal of British Film and 
Television and Screen. 

NOTES 

1 Frank Krutnik, "Something More than Night", in, David B. Clarke, 
(ed.), The Cinematic C/fy (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 83-109. 

2 See, amongst others, in Robert Murphy (ed), British Cinema in the 90s 
(London: BFI, 2000), Moya Luckett, "Image and Nation in 1990s 
British Cinema", 88-99, Robert Murphy, "A Path Through the Moral 
Maze", pp. 1-16, and Claire Monk, "Men in the 90s", pp. 156-186. 
Also in Justine Ashby & Andrew Higson (eds), British Cinema Past and 
Present (London: Routledge, 2000), Julia Hallam, "Film, Class and 
National Identity", pp. 261-273. 

3 Moya Luckett, "Image and Nation in 1990s British Cinema", in, Robert 
Murphy (ed.), British Cinema of the 90s (London: BFI, 2000), 88-99, 98. 

4 Claire Monk, "Underbelly UK: The 1990s underclass films, masculinity 
and the ideologies of "new" Britain", in, Justine Ashby & Andrew 
Higson (eds.), British Cinema Past and Present (London: Routledge, 
2000), pp. 274-287, p. 284. 

5 Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: 
Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 9. 

6 Sassen, p. 12. 

7 Sassen makes this point by drawing on, N. Thrift & P Williams (eds). 
Class ond Spoce (London: Macmillan, 1987), in Sassen, p. 267. 

8 Sassen, p. 281 . 

9 Gilles Deieuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (London: Athlone, 
1983), chapters 1 and 4, and Deieuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image 
(London: Athlone, 1 985), chapters 3 and 5. 

10 Deieuze, Cinema 2, p. 1 31 . 

1 1 Deieuze, Cinema 2, p. 79. 

12 Anthony D. King, Global Cities: Post-Imperialism and the 
Internationalization of London (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 124. 

1 3 Christine Geraghty, "Crossing over: performing as a lady and a dame". 
Screen, 43:1 (2002), pp. 41—56, p. 53. 

14 Geraghty, p. 55. 

15 Sassen, p. 265. 

16 Geraghty, p. 54. 

1 7 David Bordwell, "Film Futures', Substance: A Review of Theory and 
Literary Criticism, Issue 97, 31:1 (2002), pp. 88-104, p. 101. 

18 Dina M. Smith, "Global Cinderella: Sabrina (1954), Hollywood, and 
Postwar Internationalism", Cinema Journal, 41: 4 (2002), pp. 27-51. 

19 For a much fuller analysis of this film and its depiction of London, see, 
Charlotte Brunsdon, "London Films: From Private Cardens to Utopian 
Moments", Cineaste, 26: 4 (2001), pp. 43-6. 

20 Bordwell, p. 90. 

21 Bordwell, p. 91 . 

22 Bordwell, pp. 96-7. 

23 Julian Stringer, "Your Tender Smiles Give Me Strength", Screen 38: 1 
(1997), pp. 25-41. 

24 Li Cheuk-to, "The Return of the Father", in, Nick Browne (ed.J, New 
Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1994), pp. 160-179. 

25 Eric Rentschler, "New German Cinema to Post-Wall Cinema", in Scott 
MacKenzie & Mette Hjort (eds). Cinema and Nation (London: 
Routledge, 2000), pp. 260-277, p. 62. 

26 Claudia Mesch, "Racing Berlin: The Games of Run Lola Run", in, M/C: 
A journal of Media and Culture, 3:3 (2000). 

http://www.media-culture.org.au/0006/berlin.html (11/5/03), p. 3. 


cineACTiON 27 





The Passion of Global Hollywood 


p occurred to 
what had previously 
seemed to him a down- 
right impossibility, that 
he had lived his whole 
life not as he should, 
could actually be true. 

It occurred to him that 
his barely recognized 
promptings to fight 
against what people in 
the highest positions 
deemed good, faintly 
perceptible impulses 
which he had promptly 
shrugged off — it could 
be these that were the 
reality, and all the rest 
was not the right thing 

— Leo Tolstoy 
The Death of Ivan Ilyich 


BY LISA KERNAN 


Contemporary Hollywood is marked by contradictions. An 
endlessly maligned and ridiculed institutional “place" from 
which emanates a global corporate entertainment culture 
widely criticized for its uniformity and creative bankruptcy, 
it is at the same time the presumed origin of a technologi- 
cal transformation in cinema's conditions of production 
that holds potential for exciting innovations and demo- 
cratic expansions of the medium. Moreover, the specific 
geographic Hollywood/Los Angeles area seems an increas- 
ingly contradictory space as we enter an era referred to by 
some as the death, or “end of cinema as we know it."' In 
jvansxtc., filmmaker Bernard Rose (with the help of cast, 
crew, and Leo Tolstoy) has made these contradictions visi- 
ble on a number of levels. 

One contradictory feature of Hollywood is the annual 
Independent Spirit Awards, an exciting if ultimately pre- 
dictable celeb-fest that occasionally, interestingly, includes 
nominated films so marginally distributed that they are vir- 
tually absent from film screens and entirely absent from 
video stores during their award year. Such a film was 
Bernard Rose's ivuiisxtc. (2000, pronounced “Ivan's ecsta- 
sy"), the first feature film shot entirely on high definition 
digital video, and currently unavailable on video in North 
America. It is a retelling of Tolstoy's novella The Dciitli of 
Ivan Ilyich, about a man confronting the meaninglessness of 
his life, in which the character of Ivan is updated from a 
pre-Soviet Russian bureaucratic functionary to a 199()s 
Hollywood agent. 'Phis essay explores ivansxtc., a movie that 
is also about Hollywood, as a springboard for investigating 
textually and contextually, some of the contradictions faced 
by independent filmmakers at this transformational yet 
increasingly corporatized cultural moment. 

In an era of rapid technological change in which con- 
glomeration has quietly and legally restored vertical inte- 
gration to Hollywood,- and in the midst of a corporate pop- 
ular culture so enmeshed with marketing discourse as to he 
increasingly unrecognizable as culture, ivansxtc. offers a 
limit case that maps some of the cultural spaces and perfor- 
mative guises inhabited by films and filmmaking at the 
turn of the millennium and the turn of the medium. It is an 
allegorical portrait of, as well as a cautionary tale about, the 
last-ditch life-support systems in which cinematic innova- 
tion is enmeshed in the contemporary Hollywood media 
industry. By treating the film's litmus-like millennial pro- 
duction and reception contexts as integral to its textual 
analysis, we are able to consider ways in which the film can 
be seen to performatively reenact its own positioning in the 
corporate marketplace. The resulting whole, I argue, enables 
the film to offer an “eco-tour" of global Hollywood that is 
greater than the sum of its parts. 

This effort to integrate text and context in treating a 
film at once froFii, about, and resistant to Hollywood is 
influenced by Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy's elabo- 
ration of the notion of “MediaSpace" in their recent 
anthology of articles exploring the consequences of the 
fact that "media ..., and the social processes that shape our 

FACING PACE: Peter Weller as Don West In ivansxtc. 


perception and use of space are allied phenomena."^ 
Expanding the terrain of discussion for films and other 
media texts to include aspects of their (institutional and 
geographical) spatial situatedness increases the amount of 
information they can provide about the social world. As 
Couldry and McCarthy argue, 

[ujnderstanding media systems and institutions as spa- 
tial processes undercuts the infinite space of narrative 
that media appear to promise; it insists that our object 
of analysis is never just a collection of texts, but a spe- 
cific and material organization of space. Media, like all 
social processes, are inherently stretched out in space in 
particular ways, and not others.'* 

Exploring the ways ivansxtc. is “stretched out in space" 
entails building a case that contributes toward an ecological 
understanding of the film, encompassing analyses of its 
conditions of production, its representations of Hollywood 
space, and the performance of the titular character who 
inhabits it. 

In March 1999, Bernard Rose (a British filmmaker with 
indy roots whose success with Paperhonse in 1988 enabled 
him to come to Hollyw^ood to make Candynian in 1992 and 
Innnortal Beloved in 1994) was fresh from enduring a fatal 
studio recutting of his remake of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina at 
the hands of Warner Bros. He and girlfriend Lisa Enos went 
to a demonstration of Sony's High Definition Digital cam- 
era, and upon witnessing experienced directors of photog- 
raphy unable to distinguish the digital footage from film, 
they were persuaded to try out a prototype of the new cam- 
era, with which they could make a feature film for the price 
of a documentary. Rose became a convert to the format, 
comparing it in his press kit commentary to the revolu- 
tionary impact of impressionist painting: 

This is the heart of the digital revolution. Most people 
are not constantly backlit in real life. At night the 
"moonlight" does not come from a high crane with 
powerful arc lights that cast a blue glare as bright as any 
baseball stadium. Women do not wake up in bed with 
flawless hair and make-up. Industrial Cinema is a legiti- 
mate form — but it is stuck in rigid conventions. 
Hamstrung by money, like traditional oil painting, indus- 
trial cinema has entered its decadent phase. 

In digital cinema your girlfriend is the star. Your back- 
yard is the set. Your life is the script. ^ 

Rose then penned a screenplay retelling Tolstoy's The Death 
of Ivan Ilyich in contemporary Hollywood, and with Enos 
signed on as producer and friends Danny Huston (the “first 
and only choice to play the part of Ivan"^) and Adam 
Krentzman (Rose's agent, playing an agent), they enlisted 
Peter Weller as the film's megalomaniacal movie star Don 
West, and filled out the rest of the ensemble by casting 

cineACTiON 29 



Filming ivansxtc. with the Sony high-definition 
video camera (Danny Huston is at 


"people in roles that were as close to the reality of their lives 
as possible."^ Enos reluctantly took on the temale lead, 
Charlotte, in addition to her role as the film's producer, and 
shooting; tt)ok place in July 1999 with the Sony 1 ll)\V-7()()A 
HD camera. 

I he filmmakers were amazed throughout the brief shoot 
at what they were able to accomplish under available light 
conditions. Rose comments in his shooting diary, "|a|ll the 
dead practices of waiting around in trailers and waiting for 
trucks to be unloaded and waiting for everybody's energy to 
be sucked out of their soul just do not apply here. It is 
incredibly liberating." A restaurant scene, for e.xample, was 
filmed while the restaurant was open with its normal 
patrons and employees (who signed release torms) going 
about their business, "literally lit by candlelight." Rose goes 
on, "we shlojt a ten-page scene with eleven speaking parts 
in four hours."” I he film was edited on an Avid in Rose and 
Enos's house that August. 

Previously to this moment, Bernard Rose had achieved a 
certain degree of critical and popular success as a 
Hollwood auteur following his direction of the Clive 
Barker-written urban horror film Ciitniyunin, which inspired 


two (non-Rose) sequels, and the Beethoven biopic 
Immortal Bclovcil. Helping to make all this happen was 
Rose's agent at the time, the charismatic Jay Moloney of 
Creative Artists Agency (CAA), whose personality and 
rapid fall from grace in the industry (when he later suc- 
cumbed to a cocaine addiction) were in part what inspired 
the story of ivansxtc., along with Rose's reading of 
lolstoy's novella while researching Anna Karenina. The 
November morning the first cut ol ivansxtc. was screened, 
the crew got word that Jay Moloney had committed sui- 
cide. As Rose e.xplains: 

The picture was shot, cut and ready to sell when Jay 
Moloney was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home. 
He had hanged himself. I shudder when I think of the 
despair that must have engulfed him. Life imitated art in 
so many disturbing ways in the ensuing months. The 
reactions and behavior of certain people who shall 
remain nameless were a verbatim re-run of the movie. 
Suffice to say, CAA no longer represented me, I lost my 
cushy job at Universal, and ivansxtc. spent two years in 
the wilderness looking for distribution.^ 


30 cineACTiON 





Another article provides details about the ensuing imped- 
iments to distribution (referred to as "roadblocks" by 
actor lluston'^b but the facts are still sketchy as to CAA's 
involvement: 


The director alleges that while CAA had previously 
helped with the movie, even allowing him to film its 
weekly staff meeting, things seemed to change after 
Moloney's death. He says the agency began a campaign 
against the film that prevented it from securing a dis- 
tributor for a few years. In the aftermath, he says, he 
lost his house, his car and assorted possessions. ... A 
CAA spokesman denies Rose's allegations.^^ 

Ibe film was screened at the Toronto International film 
festival ifi 2()(K), but only gained a brief general release in 
2002, when it won the Grand jury Prize for a narrative film 
at the Boston Independent film Festival, v\\is nominated for 
Best Foreign Fihn at the British Independent Film Awards, 
and received acting nomifiations for Huston and Weller, 
Best [director nomination for Rose, and a John Cassavetes 
Award nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards, as 


well as garnering a number of positive reviews. Although 
the film was never released on video in the U.S., the film- 
makers self-distributed a DVD from their website for a peri- 
od of time.*- 

Because ivunsxk. has been so rarely seen, a brief synop- 
sis follows. The film begins by evoking the death of Ivan 
Beckman (from cancer) through a credit sequence of sunrise 
shots of LA and images of Ivan's house, sketching out the 
last moments of his life loosely from his point of view, 
accompanied by ambient sounds from the death scene that 
we see at the end of the film. The agency wiiere Ivan works 
gets the news of his death that morning at a staff meeting, 
where the incredulity is almost less that he died than that 
his dissolute lifestyle w\is not the cause of his death. A scene 
ensues where another agent placates Don West, Ivan's client 
and the agency's biggest star (Peter Weller), followed by 
Ivan's funeral, which erupts in internecine warfare among 
the agency's clients. As Ivan's coffin is slid into its mau- 
soleum, the film flashes back to his final week. Fhe charm- 
ing, charismatic Ivan gets his annual physical, attends a 
premiere with his girlfriend Charlotte, and goes to a druggy 
post-premiere party with West. Ivan promotes two of the 
agency's clients by brokering a deal between a star, a screen- 
writer and a director, in the process nabbing West as a 
client, a big coup for the agency. He is reproached by 
Charlotte (herself an aspiring screenwriter) for promoting a 
bad script that he hasn't even read. Ivan gets the news that 
his physical has turned up a lung tumor, and reacts by esca- 
lating the partying while attempting to understand and 
manage his illness by seeing a therapist, getting books on 
natural cures, and making unsuccessful stabs at telling 
Charlotte. After a depressing dinner with his family, he 
ditches Charlotte for an ecstasy party with two call-girls at 
his house, during which he opens up for the first time about 
his condition. He passes out alone, only to aw^ake screaming 
in pain, whereupon paramedics are summoned, he is taken 
to the hospital, and requires an emergency tracheotomy 
(which the film presents in graphic detail). Ivan's final 
"ecstasy" is a brief moment of loving touch given to him by 
a nurse in the hospital just before he dies. 

The film is fairly remarkable simply in terms of the w\iy it 
normalizes death. While Ivan is not an entirely likeable char- 
acter, he is sympathetic on a personal level, and we witness 
his death twice, once in fairly graphic terms and once from 
his assumed point of view'. Seen as a "Hollywood story," and 
moreover because, as I argue, the film's meanings encompass 
its production context and situatedness in geographical and 
institutional Hollywood space, w'e can also interrogate Ivan's 
death in relation to the "death" of Hollywood. 

Terminal Hollywood (Ivan's View) 

Cynical filmic portraits of the crass underbelly of 
I inseltown are by no means new, and reviews of ivnusxtc. 
trotted most of them out, from Sunset lioulevurii to The Duy 
of the Locust to I'he Tluyer.^^ But looking to this level of the 
film alone shortchanges it, even on its ow'n terms, j'he 
opening sequence's "still lives" of LA and Ivan's final 
moments Introduce us both to Hollywood and to the look 
of the high definition digital video image. Quintessential 


cineACTiON 31 


landmark imasos such as the Hollywood sign framed by 
palm trees and marquees along Hollywood Boulevard are 
rendered neither heroic, nostalgic, nor ugly by the format, 
hut rather like snapshots; not exactly real life, yet kind of 
regular. In several shots slow motion is used, particularly for 
lateral movements (a bus going by, a person walking). In 
high-definition, the slow motion effect is less trance-like 
than with film — the image appears as successive moments 
frozen in time.*-* While the cumulative effect of the open- 
ing images is decidedly not elegiac, something other than 
Hollywood-bashing, clearly, is going on. 

Living in Los Angeles, as 1 have done for the past \^ 
years, gives one a different perspective on historical 
Hollywood than that gained from the outside. In LA the 
desire to find the geographical locus of the mythical place 
is strongly evident in public discourse, and coexists both 
with moments when that desire seems fulfilled and with a 
knowledge of the ultimate impossibility of its fulfillment. 
Technically of course "Hollywood" has been situated in 
Culver City, Century City, Studio City and Burbank as well 
as Hollywood proper, and moreover has been institutional- 
ly situated in many other urban locales throughout its his- 
tory (notably New York) even before the sprawl of global- 
ization. But popular culture persists in the use of the short- 
hand. Furthermore, recent developments in LA, such as the 
blurring of boundaries between theme parks and malls 
(Universal Studios' Citwalk, the faux hitolcrancc set at the 
Hollywood and Highland mall), and the increased papering 


of its exterior spaces with film promotional discourses (such 
as ever larger billboards, and LLl) screens playing movie trail- 
ers) contribute to a packaging of the nostalgia for historical 
Hollywood that contradictorily obscures even more the pos- 
sibility that it might be found somewhere in Los Angeles. 

But mythical Hollywood is still teasingly, peripherally, 
present in LA: a curve in the road on Cahuenga near Odin 
opens onto an apartment building vista that time-warps you 
to the sixties Hollywood of American International Pictures 
movies. .A palm frond gracing a facade of Spanish stucco and 
neon evokes fleeting echoes of the noir landscapes of Billy 
Wilder. Star sightings and the paraphernalia of location 
shoots still provide locals with momentary frissons of partici- 
pation in the movietown myth. Indeed Los Angeles architec- 
ture itself, always a playground for heightened flights of fan- 
tasy and nostalgia, perpetuates an infinite regression into its 
own history with nostalgic designs such as the aforemen- 
tioned Hollywood and Highland project, along with recent 
restoration efforts to preserve Hollywood's historic movie 
theaters (F.l Capitan, the Egyptian) and famous neon signs. 
1 he material embodiment of the idea and myth of Hollywood 
is a lost object that continues to be sought by movie-specta- 
tor-tourists, designers, and industry marketers alike in con- 
temporary Los Angeles. 

Right from its operatic opening, ivnnsxtc. shows us 
Hollywood as a different kind of lost object. Fhe credit 
sequence, with its scene-setting long shots of Los Angeles 
accompanied by Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" and Ivan's 


Charlotte White (Lisa Enos), Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston) and 
Don West (Peter Weller) at the movie premiere in ivansxtc.. 



voice-over screams of agony, and its ensuing segment loose- 
ly depicting what we assume to be Ivan's final trip to the 
hospital and death from his point of view, confronts view- 
ers immediately not only with a foretaste of the story's cul- 
minating death hut with a meditation on the fear of having 
lived a meaningless life. As we see the first images of 
Hollywood at sunrise, we hear Ivan in voice-over: "Last 
night I had this incredible pain... the pain wouldn't go 
away. So I was trying to find an image, one worthwhile 
image that would get me through it. And all I could find 
was shit. ..." The images the segment calls up — lingering 
long shots of a deserted smogg>' sunrise over Griffith Park; 
half-finished billboards on the Sunset Strip; the Chinese 
and El C^apitan theaters; empty roads adorned with palm 
trees, power lines and sprinklers; chrome and glass business 
edifices; morning sunlight sparkling through leaves — are 
not, however, shit. They comprise a bracket syntagma of 
Hollywood sights: some touristic, some strikingly beautiful, 
some mundane. 

Combined with the operatic music and the screams, and 
considering the fact that we are being introduced to the 
implied point of view' of a character we haven't yet met, the 
effect is a Hollywood stripped of the mythic yet imparted 
with the sublime: a deathbed revelation that transcends 
place yet ultimately offers us hack Holh'wood as life-sized. 
I'he historic site of so many staged, orchestrated and over- 
acted death scenes here gracefully offers itself as the setting 
for our imagined confrontation with a real mortality: at 
once as momentous and yet as everyday as it is anywhere. 
Both the Hollywood satires in films such as The Thiyer and 
the nostalgic Hollyw'ood-worship of contemporary popular 
culture are upended by this opening's representations of 
Hollywood space as iilive — and dying. 

'Hie everydayness of the way this Hollywood looks is due 
only in part to the low^r-contrast look of the high-defini- 
tion image. 'Hie film's e.xploratory temporality and ambigu- 
ous vantage points contribute as w'ell. We are sometimes 
clearly meant to see Ivan's world from his point of view, yet 
the PC^V shots are more oblique than exact (we are not lit- 
erally looking from the floor where he's screaming or 
through the window of the ambulance). 'Hiese shots more- 
over follow' the series of aforementioned wide master shots 
of deserted sunrise LA that while not taken from Ivan's 
point of view', are suffused w ith his perspective by his voice- 
over "one worthw hile image" speech. We view these images 
while contemplating whether the series of shots can be 
view'ed as the "shit" that w'as all Ivan could find, or whether 
w'e might ourselves find therein "one image" of beauty and 
grace. I he sequence does not tell us w hat to find, hut does 
rhetorically invite us to scrutinize Hollv'wood for meaning. 
I'he lost object that is historical HoIlpYood here hecoFiies 
not just sought for signs of its fanciful stature as the dream 
factory of the classical era, although some of the images 
clearly evoke that familiar search, hut stands in also for the 
biggest question mark of all. Lhis rhetoric has implications 
as we view' the subsequent shots from Ivan's point of view' 
as well as the remainder of the film. Hollyw'ood's contra- 
dictions become a stage, w here spectators of this film, hav- 
ing been engaged right from the opening shots in an active 


and existential scrutiny of Hollywood space, are invited to 
interrogate larger questions than the artistic frustrations, 
petty corruptions and hypocrisies that the plot dishes up. 

Likewise, the film's production, by using a technology 
vastly simpler and cheaper than ordinary Hollywood pro- 
ductions — and having been created at a moment w hen new' 
technologies have rendered the question of w hether art can 
circumvent business in Hollwood arguably more open 
than it has been since the early days of cinema — asks some 
bigger questions just by taking place. Indeed Bernard Rose, 
w ho moreover appears to fancy himself a bit of a high-def 
prophet, takes note of this: 

That [the film] is emerging now [2002] says a lot about 
the shift in the power balance that the digital revolution 
is causing. The fact that we are coming out now means 
that, yes, you can make a film that "they" don't want 
shown. You can espouse a view contrary to the wishes of 
international corporations. That we have made it 
through with a picture that "they" would never have 
allowed will, I hope, encourage others to point the cam- 
era at their own world. 

Here, w'hat "'they' don't want shown" is not merely the 
movie business expose aspect of the film, l his is a time- 
honored genre, although the film definitely gives it new' 
punch with its critique of the culture of agents (currently 
among Hollywood's most pow'erful players). But even more, 
I would argue, the film's exploration of the naked fact that 
death happens, even in (and to?) Hollywood, can he seen as 
a threatening idea to a corporate culture industry reliant 
upon commercial interests that stress the perpetuation of 
youth through excess consumption. In any event, the exis- 
tential questions raised by the film's representations of 
Hollywood space through the point of view' of a dying 
agent reverberate all the way to its 2002 release and 
beyond — to the implications of ivausxte's invisibility in the 
U.S. in 2004. 

Performing Hollywood (Ivan Viewed) 

Danny Huston, a director (Mr. North, The Miuhlcuin^i), actor 
(Tinieahie, 21 (imuis), and the youngest child of Hollywood 
titan John Huston ("conceived during his father's produc- 
tion of Trend and born during Ni\’ht of the /v://u//(/">‘'), inhab- 
its the character of Ivan Beckman with deceptive ease. 
During editing, as Rose describes in his press kit commen- 
tary, "Danny's performance emergeldj from the material as 
a rock at the center of the picture. VVe cut away everything 
that |did| not follow' his state of mind." • 7 By chipping away 
everything that wasn't Danny, the performance thus 
grounds the film — indeed, so effectively that Huston not 
only performs the role, i.e. the character Ivan Beckman, but 
ultimately embodies his own historical star positioning as 
well. By this I don't mean the truism that he "plays him- 
self," hut rather that Huston as Ivan performatively stands 
in for global Hollwood's increasingly extreme versions of 
the film industry's perennial conflict between art and busi- 
ness — an industry that still w'ants to emulate its parents yet 
is trapped by the (creatively terminal) exigencies of the hot- 


cineACTiON 33 



Mourners including Danny McTeague (james Merendino, left) 
and Barry Oaks (Adam Krentzman, right) at Ivan's soon-to-be- 
disrupted funeral. 


tom line. 1 his idea is moreover literalized in a scene where 
Ivan is confronted by his artist father (played by his real-life 
brother-in-law, artist Robert Graham), who disapproves of 
the shallow life his son has chosen. 

Scholarly work on stardom has long emphasized that the 
meanings of movie stars and their performances always 
encompass interte.xtual echoes both of their past performanc- 
es and of their publicity, as well as echoes of other performers 
their work evokes. In the case of Danny Huston (baby broth- 
er of Anjelica, son of John, and grandson of Walter), the New 
Hollywood of The drifters and ChimUnvn and the classical 
Hollywood of Treusiire of the Sierru Miulre alike comprise 
antecedents of his performative coming-of-age. And, as with 
other "Hollywood babies" like Drew Barrymore, spectators' 
desire to see family resemblances is an inevitable component 
of experiencing these stars' work. In this case, even the char- 
acter's death has a diachronic familial echo, because Danny 
Huston speaks in interviews of drawing on his experience of 
his father's death in creating the role.*^ 

The problem of how to write about performance in 
strictly cinematic terms has only recently begun to be given 
significant scholarly attention. It is an area where analysis 
tends to fall back on inevitably inadequate description. 'Hic 
introduction to Lesley Stern and George Kouvaros's study, 
TiilUn;^ for You: Essays on Cinema ami Performance attempts to 
reconcile this through acknowledging the inadequacies: "By 
suggesting a realm of textual operation and affective inter- 
play that is both insistent yet elusive and resistant to lan- 
guage, descriptive acts ... awaken us to the uncertainty that 
all analytical enterprises must deal with."*^’ As they argue, 

34 cineACTiON 


Film ... has a tendency to move away, even as we watch, 
leaving the movement behind, with us. And sometimes 
the movement — of actors, of the way actors are moved 
within the mise-en-scene — though unfolding in time is 
not narrativized, not to be understood primarily 
through linear analysis or breakdown. What is of inter- 
est, what is intriguing, is how movement, voice, gesture 
can bring about effects, how they can generate affect. 

Specifically, Stern and Kouvaros seek a "rhetorical refiguring 
of particular forms of corporeal presence,"-* with a goal of 
approaching performance in order "to open up: a chance or 
opportunity for performance to be reconsidered and rein- 
vested as a corporeal presence."-- Danny Huston's corpore- 
al presence is key to the effectiveness of his performance in 
ivansxtc., because, not in spite of, the absent ghosts he 
brings along. His presence and absences help us to make 
sense of his performance in relation to the film's represen- 
tations of Hollywood space. 

Since Ivan himself is absent through the first ten minutes 
of the film, his corporeal presence is much anticipated. 
I hrough the film's opening, we have been introduced to 
HolK'wood as a site of absence and death, leaving us exceed- 
ingly (if not morbidly) curious about Ivan. For this reason, 
and because his (flashback) appearance in the subsequent 
body of the film, all charm and bonhomie, is layered with a 
knowledge of his later absence (i.e., death), our investment 
in his corporeal presence is heightened. In a sense, this 
heightened presence is no different from that of movie stars 
in general, for, as noted by Christine Gledhill, 




paradoxically, the star, more overwhelmingly present 
than any actor can be to a theatre audience, is also not, 
and never can be, there for the audience to cinema. This 
poignant '"presence In absence" lies at the heart of the 
desires stimulated by stardom. ^3 

Yet Huston as Ivan layers this poignancy with additional lev- 
els of "presence in absence" through the film's flashback 
structure as well as through the intertextual reverberations of 
his Hollywood lineage. 

The precise nature of tlie affect engendered by his height- 
ened presence is, indeed, resistant to language. Huston uti- 
lizes his Noah-C'ross-lanky yet substantial frame and iintlap- 
pable, cherubic face to deftly incarnate Ivan's persona and 
the way it fits in to his fast-paced boozy, druggy world. 
Having witnessed the Hollywood world Ivan has left behind 
virtually unimpacted by his death in the film's opening, 
through the flashback structure we then see Ivan on the 
phone in a doctor's office, clearly charming the person on 
the other end of the phone and the nurse who fusses over 
him. 1'liese two facts seem incommensurate: how could such 
a vibrant person have left so little a mark on his own world? 
I bis raises, at our first glimpse of Ivan, one of the core con- 
tradictions of his performance — and one of the main ways 
his performance displays Hollywood's contradictions, as a 
mythical yet real place, equally capable of immortalizing and 
discarding human life. 

VVe see the agent in action: the normalized lies (at the pre- 
miere he insistently compliments the film's producer, who 
counters, "It sucked," whereupon Ivan deftly backpedals, 
"You should he proud of it anyway"); the practiced media- 
tion of the currency of small-talk (he introduces the screen- 
writer to the star's entourage, then compliments the writer's 
inane sucking-up with a sincere-sounding "Well done!"). 'Hie 
characterization and perforFiiance as a whole vivify the 
appeal that the clubbiness of Hollywood still holds, in spite 
of our knowledge that it is, in l-assbinder's words, "a holy 
whore." (Recent images of Democratic California assembly- 
men unable to hold back ear-to-ear grins as they meet their 
latest movie-star governor come to mind...) 

The scene where Charlotte calls Ivan on his lies and his 
perpetuation of mediocrity (by accusing him of not having 
read the bad script he's trying to get filmed) makes it clear 
that they both know he's a fraud, even as they skinny-dip 
together and snuggle in the water. This scene is key to the 
impact of Ivan's corporeal presence on his performance: 
Charlotte is angry (as a better, yet female, screenwriter, her 
path is not smoothed-over by the Ivans of Hollywood, how- 
ever often she might sleep with them), and Ivan cooingly 
tries to reassure her. She has stripped and is in the pool, and 
as he opens his robe and unceremoniously inclines his long 
naked frame into the pool to join her, the clear-blue David 
Hockney water embraces bim in a Hollwood baptism. His 
body has a sad, yet parado.xically steely vulnerability — the 
affect of Huston's naked dive somehow bespeaks the contra- 
dictory honesty of likeable people in Ivan's position, who 
acknowledge, even as they perpetuate, the requisite injus- 
tices of "swimming with sharks." Danny Huston represents 
generations of Hollwood celebrity, and here his throwaway 


nakedness somehow denaturalizes the desire to be near that 
celebrity. By displaying the persistence of human embodi- 
ment at the "ground zero" of celebrity, Huston heightens the 
contradiction that Hollywood's vast global and virtual spaces 
still contain, at their core, bodies that can break and die. 

After Ivan gets his cancer verdict, the corporeal center of 
his performance shifts to his eyes. I lecing his predicament to 
Don West's depressing, "provision "-filled party, he gets a per- 
functory blow job from a prostitute on a balcony as LA's 
ubiquitous police helicopters scissor overhead, then is shown 
making out with another woman under a strobe light. Hie 
digital image enhances the freeze of the strobed moments, 
and for a few frozen frames, Huston's childlike brown eyes 
look right at the camera, sadly staring down oblivion in 
jerky, excessive movements that echo silent cinema's expres- 
sion istic gestures. The next morning, those same eyes look 
hack at him to rehearse a reassuring Hollywood grin in the 
visor mirror of his convertible, as he zooms off to another 
day at the agency after waking up on a blood-soaked pillow. 
Huston as Ivan performs terminal illness as a teetering 
I lumpty-Dumpty-like ledge, but one where the teetering dif- 
fers only in degree from that of his everyday Hollywood life. 

In addition to the echoes of silent cinema, the conven- 
tions of Hollywood melodrama kick in: the camera peers in 
on a congratulatory hug Ivan gets from his female boss after 
having signed Don West, as Ivan's eyes close in rapture at the 
semblance of intimacy he receives: for a moment a Sirkian 
pathos shines forth beneath his "bit of a rough week" mask. 
The death scene itself offers the film's most striking cinemat- 
ic echo, as the tracheotomized Ivan, having scrawled out 
"Fuck Ciod" in reply to a hospital chaplain's ministrations, 
receives a moment of grace in the form of a kind nurse who 
wipes his brow, holds his hand and kisses him on the fore- 
head. Both his beatific acceptance of this gift and his horror 
at its being taken away when the nurse proceeds on her 
rounds flash across his eyes in pure silent expressions of inte- 
rior states of feeling worthy of Falconetti's (and Dreyer's) 
Joan of Arc. In the end, Ivan is ennobled not by a religious 
ecstasy but by transgressing the unwritten law of his profes- 
sion and culture. The passion of Ivan Beckman comprises his 
acknowledgment of the simplicity of real human need. 

The film's narrative structure heightens our awareness 
at this point in the film of the contrast betw^een Ivan's 
ecstasy and our memory of the unchanged way the agency 
goes on (has gone on) after his death. Likewise, the film's 
conditions of production point up, by w'ay of their sim- 
plicity, the top-heavy uinvieldiness of Hollywood's vast 
institutional mechanisms. Ihrough Danny Huston as 
Ivan, the film marshals the children of old Hollywood to 
embody its vision of global Hollywood as teetering on the 
brink: asking whether it might be able, ultimately, to be 
toppled by the briefest kiss of a new technology that brings 
cinema back into your backyard. 

Integrating Text and Context 
{ivansxtc/s "viewing-vlew") 

I have been struck by the fact that in all the discussion sur- 
rounding the recent release of the final installment of the 
technologically ground-breaking Matrix trilogy, I wus 


cineACTiON 35 


unable to locate any mention of the film's fundamental 
plot flaw. A supposedly happy ending comprising a 
detente with a vast technological intelligence that the 
film's rebels fight against is morally impossible, in that by 
using these technologies, the rebels themselves are feeding 
on the brain-waves of still-enslaved humans. I digress; yet 
a millennial Hollywood culture that still can't quite let 
itself acknowledge the extent to which it is consumed by 
its own excessive technological and institutional needs 
and greeds is very much to the point. Indeed it is precise- 
ly the ecological mirror that ivaitsxtc. holds up, both by 
existing and by its current absence in our video stores. 

In a very real way, a film can only exist by being seen. 
Vivian Sobchack's phenomenology of film experience 
describes how the film's "viewing-view" that we conven- 
tionally call "the camera" in cinematic description can 
never wholly he a "disembodied" view. The movements 
and stasis of the camera as an embodied presence in (here, 
Hollywood) space and the movements of characters 
through (HolK^ood) space are two commuted aspects of 
cinematic signification, along with the spectator's experi- 
ence of cinema, which is correlated with the film's signi- 
fying activity. Sohchack emphasizes that 

...it is only in the act of viewing that the film is given 
to our experience as meaningful, and it is only in the 
act of viewing that the film possesses existence for 
itself as well as for us. A film can't be seen outside of 
our act of viewing it, and a film can't be outside of its 
own act of viewing. ... Therefore, it is the act of view- 
ing that links the spectator of a film and the film as 

spectator.25 

In other words, iwnsxtc. has a life too: in order for the 
film to accurately sec its Hollywood subject matter, it must 
be seen. I he fact that North American audiences are not 
able to currently see this film renders it (not Hollywood) 
effectively (if, hopefully, temporarily) as dead as the fic- 
tional Hollywood agent through whose eyes this film's 
"viewing-view" is embodied. 

l.ike the mythical yet real Hollywood that it is about, 
ivunsxtc/s material existence — as something able to he 
seen — thus contains inherent existential contradictions, 
leaving the question of whether it represents "new direc- 
tions" in filmmaking profoundly, even poetically, open. 
As I write this conclusion, two events have just occurred 
in global Hollywood: the Clarlyle Group, one of the largest 
weapons investment firms in the world, announced its 
partnership in a $2 billion (Canadian) takeover of tlie 
Loews theater chain;^^’ the same day Michael Moore's 
Fiihrcnhcit 9/1 1 opened to record-breaking attendance. 
The stakes in independent filmmaking are higher and 
more contradictory than ever. As he died, Iblstoy's Ivan 
(in the opening epigraph) came to perceive that "his bare- 
ly recognized promptings to fight against what people in 
the highest positions deemed good" could be the true 
reality. In the "MediaSpace" of century Hollywood, 
such promptings arc getting even harder to recognize. But 
they are still alive. 


Lisa Kernan is the author of Coming Attractions: Reading 
American Movie Trailers (University of Texas Press, forthcoming 
November 2004). She holds an appointment at UCLA as the 
library's subject specialist in film, television and theater, and serves 
as a lecturer in the department of Film, Television and Digital 
Media. 

NOTES 

1 See jon Lewis, ed., The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film 
in the Nineties, New York: New York University Press, 2001 . 

2 jennifer Holt, "In Deregulation We Trust: The Synergy of Politics 
and Industry in Reagan-Era Hollywood," Film Quarterly, Vol. 55, 
No. 2, Winter 2001, pp. 22-29 

3 Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy, "Orientations: Mapping 
MediaSpace," in Couldry and McCarthy, eds., MediaSpace: Place, 
Scale and Culture in a Media Age, New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 1 . 

4 Ibid, p. 4. 

5 Press Kit, ivansxtc., www.artlic.com/press/kits/ivans_xtc kit.html 

6 Ibid. 

7 Ibid. 

8 Ibid. 

9 "A True Hollywood Story: Inside Hollywood. Ivansxtc. Testimony 
Bernard Rose," Time Out, june 5, 2002, p. 16 

10 Robert Osborne, "Rambling Reporter: Film of Top Agent's Fall is 
Fine, But Hard to Find," BPI Entertainment News Wire, june 18, 

2002. http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe. 

1 1 Naomi Pfefferman, "How Life Imitated Art in Bernard Rose's 
Independent Film ivansxtc.," lnterfaithFamily.com Network, Issue 93. 
http://www.interfaithfamily.com/article/issue93/pfefferman.phtm. 

12 Sharon Swart, "Cassavetes Contender," Daily Variety, March 21, 

2003, p. A3 

1 3 See, for example, Cosmo Landesman, "The Real Deal," London 
Times, july 21, 2002, p. 9; A. O. Scott, "Movie Agent is Likable but 
Not Nice," New York Times, june 7, 2002, <www.nytimes.com>; 
Kim Newman, "ivansxtc.," Sight and Sound \/o\. 12, No. 8, pp. 41- 
42; Sukhdev Sandhu, "Beverly Hills Cop-out Film of the Week," 
London Daily Telegraph, july 19, 2002, p. 25; "Ivansxtc.," Pittsburgh 
Post-Gazette, November 8, 2002, p. 22. 

14 At regular speed, some movements leave a strobe-like trail in hi- 
def, and the slow motion effect may have been used in these wider 
shots in order to avoid this. 

15 "A True Hollywood Story," p. 16. 

1 6 Press Kit. 

17 Ibid. 

18 "A True Hollywood Story," p. 1 7 

1 9 Lesley Stern and George Kouvaros, eds.. Falling for You: Essays on 
Cinema and Performance, Sydney: Power Publications, 1999, pp. 
30-31. 

20 Ibid., p. 19-20. 

21 Ibid., p. 14. 

22 Ibid., p. 30. 

23 Christine Cledhill, "Signs of Melodrama," in Christine Gledhill, ed. 
Stardom: Industry of Desire, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 219 

24 As of 2004, however, high-definition digital video is still not per- 
ceived within the industry as the perfect image acquisition medi- 
um to fulfill the promises held out by Bernard Rose's shooting 
diary, as it does contain some limitations of cost (compared to 
other DV media) and image quality (compared to film stock). 
(Conversation with film editor Glenn Farr, july 11, 2004.) The 
extent to which the technology develops in such a way as to con- 
tinue to provide increasingly high quality footage at increasingly 
cost-effective prices holds implications for the future of cinema as 
a democratic medium, and is an important subject for further 
research. 

25 Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film 
Experience, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 129. 

26 Nicole Sperling, "Loews Goes for $1.5 Bil," Hollywood Reporter, 
june 22, 2004. 


36 cineACTiON 


Korean Cinema Now 

BALANCING CREATIVITY AND COMMERCE 
IN AN EMERGENT NATIONAL INDUSTRY 


i 


BY PETER HARRY RIST 



Introduction 

Some of the most exciting developments in both artistic and com- 
mercial terms during the first few years of the new millennium can 
be found in Korean cinema J With two films in competition at the 
Cannes International Film Festival and with one of them, Old Hoy 
, (directed by Park Chan-wook), winning the second prize, the Grand 
Prix du Jury, 2(K)4 may prove to be Korea's breakout film year, but, it 
should have been 2002, when Im Kwon-taek's Chiliwascon won him 
the Best Director award at Cannes and Lee Chang-dong's Oosis won 
no fewer than three awards at Venice, including the Special Director's 
(Jury) Award and the FlPRESCl (critics') prize. Arguably, 2002 was 
Korea's greatest ever film year during which it is unlikely that any 
other country in the world produced a wider range of quality films.2 
Korean cinema had been virtually unknown in the west until 
1986 when Gilsottum directed by Im Kwon-taek, was entered in 
competition at the Berlin film festival (and won a prize in 
/ Chicago), and when the Festival of Fhree Continents 

at Nantes, in France, staged a 13 film retrospec- 
" tive. The following year, 1987, the year that 

democracy finally came to South Korea with 
presidential elections, the late David Overbey 
programmed an amazing retrospective of 37 
contemporary East and Southeast Asian 
films, entitled "Eastern Horizons" for 
Toronto's Festival of Festivals. I his 
program included 8 films from 


the Republic of Korea, 3 of 
which were directed by 
Im Kwon-taek, the most 
prominent Korean cineaste 
of the 198()s. At the 1988 
Montreal World Film Festival, 
Adiulit (also directed by 
m Kwon-taek) won 
the award for Best 


Oasis 


Actress. This festival has continued to show Korean films on 
a regular basis, mounting a 9 film national spotlight in 
1998.^ A big moment occurred in 1990, when the Pesaro 
film festival in Italy mounted a retrospective of Korean cin- 
ema, accompanied by a hook, 11 ciiwnui sittkorciino, edited 
by Adriano Apra, and this was followed by an even bigger 
representation of Korean film history at the Centre Georges 
Pompidou in Paris, from October 1993 to February 1994. At 
this time no fewer than 85 films were screened and a sig- 
nificant book was published. 

Ihe major Parisian retrospective possibly led to more 
attention being placed on Korean cinema in France than in 
other non- Asian countries, with Cahiers ilii Cincnui and 
rositif regularly devoting articles to the subject and with 
Korean films regularly being distributed there. On the 
F.nglish language side, it should be noted that Tony Rayns 
almost single-handedly supplied the anglophone film read- 
er with te.xts on Korean cinema through the 199()s, and he 
has become one of the world's greatest film programmers 
with his Dragons and Figers Pacific Rim program at the 
Vancouver International Film Festival, which always show- 
cases a numher of new Korean films. Over the last few years, 
Darcy Paquet has done sterling work in promoting Korean 
cinema through the trade journal. Screen Intenhitionnl and 
his F.nglish-language website, "The Korean Film Page," 
<http://www.koreanfilm.org>, while a few other journalists, 
including Chuck .Stephens and Derek Filey have joined the 
ranks of Fnglish-language, Korean film supporters. And, 
finally, a few books in F.nglish on Korean cinema are begin- 
ning to appear on the shelves, ranging from an academic 
study on "masculinity" in recent Korean cinema, to a fan's 
"Guidebook for the Latest Korean New VVave."^^ 

Nevertheless, Korean cinema has still yet to find its well- 
deserved place on the map of World art cinema. One could 
argue that this is because there has never been a single 
breakthrough film like Akira Kurosawa's Rnshonion , which 
inspired a wave of interest in Japanese cinema with its suc- 
cess at the Venice International Film Festival in 1950 , and 
Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth, which sparked the "discovery" of 
China's "Fifth Generation" with its screening at the Hong 
Kong International Film Festival in 1985, follow'ed by 
Zhang Yimou's Red Sors^lnnn winning the Golden Bear top 
prize at the 1988 Berlin festival. Surely, this should have 
happened to Korean cinema in 2002, but neither of the two 
most likely contenders, Im Kwon-taek's Chihwneson or Lee 
Chang-dong's Ou.s/.s, received widespread critical interest or 
global distribution. However, after a gap of 15 years, the 
Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) organized a focus 
on Korean films, and chose to honor Chihwaseon by selecting 
it as the first Korean film to fill one of the prized 'Gala' slots. 

"Harvest: South Korean Renaissance" 

at the Toronto International Film Festival 2002 

(diihwiiseon continues in the vein of the bulk of Im's mature 
work, since Tcimkk'o (1980) in being set in the past, struc- 
tured through a series of flashbacks, and shot by the 
e.xtraordinary veteran cinematographer, Jung 11-sun (or 
Chong llsong*).*’ Apart from its stunning beauty (like Im 


and lung's previous collaboration, Clninhyan^ , 2()()0), what 
is most remarkable about Chihwiiseon is how the life of a 
late- 19th century painter is transformed into a story of 
rebellion. The artist in question is Jang Seung-ub. Fhe film 
depicts him as being from the lower classes. F.arly in his life, 
he finds a mentor in Kim Byung-moon, who champions his 
work against the wishes of his associates. Initially copying 
the work of Cdiinese classical masters — landscapes, birds 
and flowers— by memory, after only seeing them once each, 
Jang breaks out of tradition and finds his own style. He is 
portrayed as a disheveled hon vivant, who believes that sex 
and alcohol are necessary to support the creative impulse. I 
am not at all familiar with the work of the actual historical 
painter, but I suspect that a great deal of artistic license has 
been taken in this depiction as a way for the director to 
present himself as being, simultaneously, a "classical" and a 
radical filmmaker. Im has been Korea's most highly 
acclaimed director both inside and outside his country for 
about twenty years now, and, recently, the very first mono- 
graph on a Korean director in English was published on his 
work. 7 His forte has been the exploration of Korean history 
and culture, and the development of a specifically "Korean" 
cinema characterised by a more open expression of strong 
emotions than would normally be found in contemporane- 
ous Japanese and Chinese films, yet sharing these national 
cinemas' interest in all aspects of visual composition. In this 
sense, Chihwnseon is an excellent example of his (and 
Jung's) work. 

Oasis is Lee Chang-dong's .3rd film as a director. His first. 
Green Fish (Chorok Mnl^^oki 1996), a brilliantly acted and 
written indictment of gangsterism in Korea, won the 5th 
Dragons and Tigers award at Vancouver in 1997. His second 
film, Eeppennint Candy {Bakha Saraii^ 1999) displayed an 
innovative narrative structure, where successive flashbacks 
go progressively further back in time, to explore the roots of 
the central character's violent behaviour. 

In its love story of Hong Jong-du, a mildly mentally- 
challenged man, and Han Gong-ju, a woman suffering from 
cerebral palsy. Oasis doesn't have the kind of subject matter 
which is appealing to me, and, if it w^re a Hollywood film. 
I'm sure 1 would have stayed far away from its assumed 
maudlin potential. While Oasis has a conventional narra- 
tive structure, it includes subjective passages which might 
be termed "magical-realist." The film's title is the subject of 
a tapestry hanging on Gong-ju's bedroom wall and the ele- 
phant, Indian woman and little boy who are included, 
show up in this room with the oddest of "odd couples" in a 
later fantasy sequence, when their love relationship is at its 
peak. Brilliantly, Lee Chang-dong chose to show their devel- 
oping relationship in idealized fantasy images, as well as 
realist ones, where Gong-ju, in particular, can be seen by 
the film audience, momentarily, as physically unchal- 
lenged.” Moon So-ri , playing both incarnations of Gong-ju, 
understandably won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for 
"Best Young Actor or Actress" in Venice for this brave per- 
formance which involved incredibly strenuous contortions 
to achieve the cerebral palsy effect. But she is matched by 
the less physical but more subtle psychological portrayal of 


38 cineACTiON 


Jong-du by celebrated film actor Sol Kyung-Gu. Perhaps the 
greatest achievement of Ousts is in getting the audience to 
be sympathetic towards Jong-du after his initial meeting in 
the film with Gong-ju when he brings fruit and flowers to 
her family's apartment. Much later, we learn that Jong-du 
had taken the rap for his older brother's hit-and-run killing 
of a road cleaner, and so, retroactively we understand that 
he is acting kindly towards the bereaving family. But his fas- 
cination with Gong-ju leads to his attempted rape of her. 
She faints during the attempt, and he then revives her 
under a bathroom tap. The confusion of the film's charac- 
ters' emotions here and the audience's puzzled responses to 
their actions is indicative of the narrative as a whole. Gong- 
ju comes to love Jong-du, and, except for his younger broth- 
er, Jong-sae, everyone around them completely misunder- 
stands their mutual attraction, believing him to he a crimi- 
nal and a rapist. Meanwhile, the film's audience knows bet- 
ter and can fully understand both the plight of the misun- 
derstood outlaw, and the lynch-moh mentality of polite 
society which Ousts allegorically projects. 

Among the other PI FI* selections were three Korean box 


office successes: Volcuito fli^lt {H\vu-sutt-\i()) which was the 
9th highest grossing Korean film of 2001 with 1,687,800 
tickets sold; CItutttpioit, the Sth highest Korean film of 2002, 
with 1,770, 000 admissions; and the surprise hit of the year, 
The Wuy Home ijihim), which, at the time of the FI FI* was 
not only the top grossing Korean film of the year, with over 
4 million tickets sold, hut also had out-grossed all 
Hollywood films, including the first part of Lonl of the Ritt^^s 
and Spulermuity Volcuito Hish, which is set entirely within a 
fictional school for the "magically and martially adept" was 
show^n, appropriately, in Toronto's Midnight Madness sec- 
tion. It is highly derivative of contemporary Flollywood 
action/adventures such as The Mutrix and closely related to 
Japanese ntuit^iu, even reminiscent in narrative and charac- 
terization of the "Lord of the Kings" and "Harry Potter," 
sagas, films w^hich the director, Kim Tae-Ciyun couldn't pos- 
sibly have seen.*’* And yet, in its timelessness — old build- 
ings, traditional school uniforms, punk, dyed hair, and sci- 
fi stunts and effects — and look — dark, often nighttime, 
hlue/grey digitally enhanced monochromatic tone with red 
and yellow highlights, invariably, raining — Volcuito Hish 




has a strikiniL* visual consistency, moments of comedy, and 
terrific, hij;h-flying action. Ihis is the kind of work that 
Hons Kong used to do so well with that they dominated the 
hast Asian marketjilace, including Korea. Now, it is Korean 
films like Volciiuo that have not only captured domes- 
tic attention, hut Hong Kong and Japanese, as well. 

One ot the strengths of recent Korean cinema is in its 
serious exploration of human sexuality. Three of the best 
films in the TIFF 2()()2's "Spotlight on Korea" reflect this: 
Too Youiis* to Die (Ju^^codo Jolholi'), Niikto(ilul) (Ctuncllsl, 
2001), and Turnin\i Dote (Soen\i-lnvol-eui liol-^yiin). Fhe most 
interesting ot these in terms of the representation of sexu- 
ality is Too Yomiy to Die, directed by veteran TV documen- 
tarian, Park jin-pyo. Technically, it is his first "fiction" fea- 
ture, a nv "docudrama," yet many think it is actually a doc- 
umentary. In it , a couple in their 70s, Park Chi-g>’u and Lee 
Sun-ye, act out their loving relationship for the camera. 
Director Park had met them while making a TV documen- 
tary on seven older couples, entitled Love, and had been 
struck by their passion for each other. Both had been wid- 
owed a few years ago and met at a centre for the elderly in 
February 2001. They re-enact this meeting, and their time 
spent together, including an extraordinary 7-minute long 
take where the camera explicitly, hut very discreetly, 
observes their lovemaking. I was fortunate to see Too Youn\i 
to Die with a Korean audience at the 2002 Jeonju 
International Film Festival. Kemarkahly, although the vast 
majority of this audience was in their teens and twenties, 
they enjoyed the experience immensely. On the other 
hand, one film scholar I talked to found the film to be real- 
ly exploitative of the septuagenarian subjects. But in an 
interview with Fony Rayns included in the filiiTs press kit. 


the director claims they are both "very happy" and "very 
proud" of Too Youny to Die. Park jin-pyo states that "They 
collaborated with us very fully in making the film, and so a 
lot of what appears on screen comes directly from their own 
iFiput. I hey find that the result is true to their experience 
and feelings." Not only does the work counter stereotyped 
views of old people being asexual or non-sexual— Mr f*ark 
and Ms Lee are clearly "in love" physically, emotionally and 
psychologically — hut, it goes even further in confronting us 
with questions on the cinematic representation of sexuali- 
ty. We are led to think about what constitutes the "erotic" 
and the "pornographic" in film, anew, with completely 
fresh eyes. 

At the minimalist extreme of contemporary Korean "art" 
cinema, we find Park Ki-young's second feature, Comel(s}. 
Its centrepiece setting is a love motel, the only setting of his 
first feature. Motel (foetus (1997), which was shot, in colour, 
by longtime Wong Kar-wai collaborator, Chris Doyle. All 
the rich colour of the earlier work is completely drained out 
in the new work, which was filmed on a Sony mini-DV 
camera in black and white and then transferred onto .TSmm 
film stock, while maintaining a very grainy appearaFice. A 
maFi in his 4()s, driviFig a car in the raiFi picks up a slightly 
younger woFiian froFii an airport. He apologizes for being 
late, aFid yet they doFi't seem to kFiow oFie aFiother. It is 
hard to gauge their appearance because the caFiiera is set up 
behind the car's front seats. Over the 91 Fiiinute ruFUiing 
tiFiie of (.Minel(s) we view oFily 50 or fewer shots, and strug- 
gle to learFi about the two characters and their lives froFii 
their very sparse dialogue. Mostly the caFiiera is static hut in 
a restauraFit sceFie it paFis back aFid forth hetweeFi theFii 
across the top of the table viewiFig food aFid beer aFid a wall 


40 cineACTiON 




in the background. Ciradually we come to learn that she is 
a pharmacist, and from a phone conversation lie has in a 
bathroom, we surmise that he mi^ht he an undertaker. Only 
alter they enter a motel, driving through strange plastic 
flaps (concealing the identity of clandestine guests), do we 
learn that both of them are married, and are, therefore hav- 
ing an affair. Everything conspires to render (Aiiticl(s) mini- 
malist, even, the fact that the couple never reach their 
intended island (paradise) destination, across a bridge 
which can be seen through a window at their first rest stop. 
With so little happening, we pay attention to every detail, 
and when a phone rings in the motel room, it is startling 
like a gunshot, and at the end, with the camera set uj) in the 
hack of his car, viewing both figures from behind, a series of 
jump cuts injects a tense feeling of anticipation that there 
might be an accident. But the film just ends ... 

riw Tiirniii\i iiiitc (Siicn\i-lnviil-cni Bti-siyon), the fourth fea- 
ture made by Hong Sang-soo, is dramatically his most 
accomplished yet. Hong's first feature, I'lic Duy the ri\i Fell in 
the Well won the 1996 Dragons afid Tigers award in 
Vancouver and, with The Power of Kunywon Province (1998) 
and Vir\iin Stripped Bore by Her Bochelors (2( )()()), he contin- 
ues to experiment with narrative form, telling the same 
story from different perspectives, or overlapping segments 
of time." The Tnrnin^ Hote has a linear, scripted plot, hut 
the dialogue was improvised or written on a day-hy-day 
basis. Under these circumstances, the quality of the acting 
is exceptional, and the central male character, Kyung-soo 
/Kim Sang-kyung, a self-absorbed, successful stage actor 
who has just failed in his first movie role, rings completely 
true. Along the way, the film presents a comprehensive por- 
trait of a narcissistic man for whom the audience gradually 


loses sympathy, and with two strong and likeable female 
characters posited against Kyung-soo, Hoiig .Sang-soo cor- 
rects the gender imbalance of his first two films where 
women had been victimized by men. 

For me, the most surprising and striking film from any- 
where at the 2002 TIFF, and very much a film "on the 
edge," was Synipothy for Mr. Veii\ieonce {Boksoonenn Nonhynt). 
Park Cdian-wook came to prominence with his third feature 
film, J.5./1.; Joint Security Area ((i()n\i-d()ny-kynny-hi-cnyetik). 
Fhis film, perhaps more than any other, was the most sig- 
nificant Korean film to score well at the box office — it sur- 
passed all comers in 2()()(), Including Mission hnpossible 2 
and ( i Uhl iotor w’lih over two million admissions — because it 
successfully combined art film ingredients of skilful direc- 
tion of an ensemble cast, elegant visual composition and 
camera work, and serious subject matter with audience 
appeal. Koreans seem to be extremely interested in their 
own history, and flocked to see this political thriller about 
a conflict between soldiers of the North and the South at 
the DMZ (demilitarized zone).. After the achievement of 
J.S.A., it is perhaps sur|irising that Park Chan-wook would 
turn to comic hook characterization, stylized genre and 
action filmmaking, the territory of young upstarts, like 
Japan's Takashi Miike, with Synipothy for Mr. Venyeonce. Fhis 
film is a kind of reductio od obsnrdiun on the theme of 
vengeance. A young deaf steelworker, Ryu, is laid off, just 
at the time when he is trying to raise money for his dying 
sister's kidney transplant. With the aid of his wacky girl- 
friend, he kidnaps his rich employer's child for ransom, 
after he had been tricked into selling his own kidney. I he 
organ traffickers disappear after taking the money Ryu had 
with him, and his kidney. Understandably, he seeks 


cineACTiON 41 




reven^»o. Meanwhile, the boss' s dauj;liter drowns because 
Kyii can't hear her cries for help and he becomes the target 
of the rich man's revcnj»e. 

"Over-the-top" doesn't begin to describe the outrageous 
nature of Svinpiithy for \1r. Vcti^concc. Park Chan-w'ook 
shifts gears readily from high melodrama to black comedy 
via horrifying action and with tremendous flair. Ihe sound- 
track is as rich as the image track, and its mode changes 
from subjectiv'e to objectiv'e, especially in relation to the 
deaf Ryu. Sympnthy for Mr VenKConev is a veritable cult film 
tour lie force and is exemplary of contemporary Korean cin- 
ema going in a variety of interesting directions. 

Women in Korean cinema and the 7th Pusan 
International Film Festival 

I hrough watching many Korean films made from the 196()s 
to the present day, it has become clear to me that tradition- 
ally, sexual relations in Korea have been decidedly patriar- 
chal, and, in addition, that domestic violence may be an 
even more systemic problem there than elsewhere. 
Recently, some Korean film directors, especially Lee Chang- 
dong, with Peppennint Ciuuly, (ireeii Fish, and Oasis, have 
begun to address these problems seriously. Another such 
director is Kim Ki-duk, whose lUul Guy {Nuhheun Nuinju 
2001) may well be the single most excessive (and, in my 
view, repulsive) representation of a male rape fantasy, where 
the female victim comes to love her oppressor. 1 had tirst 
noticed this phenomenon in Korean cinema when 1 viewed 
Kim Sooyong's The Sen Villose {itoetiuo-eul 1965) and 
Mouutoiu Fire, aka Fire in the Volley (Souhul, 1967) in August 
1994 as part of a Montreal film series — a condensed version 
of the c:entre Georges Pompidou, Paris, retrospective. 1 was 
simultaneously impressed by tbe beauty ot the films' land- 
scape compositions and repelled by the brutality of the sex- 
ual encounters (which, somehow led to love relationships). 

I was pleased, therefore, to gain a very different impression 
at the 7th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) in 
November 2002 through watching other films made by Kim 
Soo-yong in a major retrospective which was cleverly pro- 
grammed by Gho Young-jung to show a gentle, more "fem- 
inine" side to the director's work. 1 his was especially evi- 
dent in the oldest film in the series. Return ofo Mon, (Doloon 
sonoi 1960), a very pow'erful "male weepie" on sacrificial 
love, and three films starring the incredibly dynamic and 
sexy actress, Yun Chung-hi: Mist (An Goe 1967); Mi^ht 
Voyose {Yohoen ,shot in 1975 and not released until 1977 in 
a heavily censored version); and SpleniTuI Outins 
(llwolyeolion oechul 1977). In all three films one is remind- 
ed of Michelangelo Antonioni's directing of Monica Vitti in 
their Italian tetralogy (from L'Awenturo in 1959 to II Deserto 
Rosso in 1964), except that the characters Yun plays arc far 
more demonstrative. Indeed, director Kim and actress muse 
Yun seem to be challenging the stereotype of the submissive 
w'oman in these films. While state censorship mitigated 
against endings where the central, female character could 
be totally free, ambiguity was their solution. 

Fhis discussion leads me to a second observation of a 
tendency which was in evidence at the 7th PIFF; the promi- 
nence of Korean women as film directors. By my count, of 


the 24 feature length, new Korean films on view' at the fes- 
tival, 6 were directed by women. Outside of a specifically 
designated "women's" film festival, this is probably the best 
representation of Korean female film directors ever, in one 
place. Of the surprise hit of 2002, The Woy Home (Jihiro), it 
may w'ell be enough to state how' wonderful it is that a fea- 
ture film, directed by a woman, Lee Jeong-hyang, has been 
so popular with Korean audiences and critics, alike. Women 
have had to battle for their rights in every country in the 
world, but, it is surely fair to say that Korean women have 
had to fight harder against patriarchy than most. The Woy 
Home also became the very first Korean film to be picked up 
for wide distribution in North America by Paramount 
Classics.*^ Its domestic, commercial success is surprising for 
another reason: its subject, which hardly promises box 
office triumph. A seven-year-old boy, Sang-woo, w'ho has 
been raised in the city, is sent to live in the remote coun- 
tryside with his mute grandmother by his mother while she 
looks for work. The leading performances, by non-profes- 
sional actors, are The Woy Home’s greatest asset, while a real- 
ist approach, and the universal, albeit old-fashioned nature 
of the subject matter provide the opportunity for commer- 
cial success outside of Korea. It would be very difficult to 
argue that The Woy Home is a feminist w'ork, but another 
contemporary Korean film directed by a woman certainly 
fits the bill. Of the few' fiction features directed by Korean 
w'omen before 2002, Toke Lore of My (aiI ((toyonsHeuI 
Rootokhoe 2001) is surely the finest and most original, 
jeong |ae-eun, was one of the first graduates in film from 
the Korean National University of the Arts, and she made 
award winning short films before getting to direct her first 
feature, Toke Gore of My Cot. Like Lee Jeong-hang, Jeong Jae- 
eun chooses the realist mode, but w'ith a free-f lowing, more 
contemporary stvle. Refreshingly, tor a film about young 
people, there is no sex w'hatsoever in Toke Core of My Cot, 
and, very little along the lines of "romance." My recogni- 
tion of "freshness," here in the film's resistance against 
showing sexual activity comes primarily through distinct 
contrast to Hollywood, where films focusing on the lives of 
young people, these days, seem to be only about "sex," 
whether they are comedies, romances, or, even horror films. 

On the other hand, one can note a very different, open- 
ly "fresh" approach to human sexuality in tw'o films direct- 
ed by Korean w'omen receiving their w'orld premieres at the 
7th PIFF: Arilor (Mil Ae) and Jeolousy Is My MiiUlle Nome 
(Jiltunun Noeui Him). Arilor, a first fiction work for the direc- 
tor of the remarkable trilogy of documentaries on "comfort 
W'omen," Byun Young-joo, looks at marriage and a hot, 
extra-marital affair from the perspective of a w'ronged 
woman. The affair is genuinely erotic at times, and, like 
Turnins (^hite, Byun's film presents a very thorough critique 
of a manipulative, egocentric man, the lover. Jeolousy Is My 
Miihlle Nome, another first fiction feature, for director Park 
Chan-ok, is far less sexually explicit, but is very interesting 
for its representation of a "jealous" relationship between a 
male graduate student and his magazine editor mentor. Like 
Arilor, the film's strength is in its perceptive analysis of com- 
petitive, testosterone driven heterosexual men who desire 
love (or sex). With w'omen also making challengingly polit- 


42 cineACTiON 


ical documentaries like ()// the Ri^iht Truck ClwolrolKWi Eiii Surunt 
Dciil dir., Lee ji-yoiing), which documents a dramatic internal 
union struggle against the old, hierarchical status-quo, and The 
Bonier City {Cyeou^^v Dosi dir., Hong Hyung-sook) which openly 
supports an outlawed, exiled leader of the Korean unification 
movement. Song Doo-yul, the stage is set for an even greater 
Involvement of women in the future of Korean cinema, knowing 
that their work is hound to challenge established norms of the 
home and workplace, alike. 

Economics and the Korean Screen Quota System 

Clearly, 2002 had been a great year for Korean cinema, both finan- 
cially and artistically, and 1 join Adam llartzell In believing it to he 
the best year ever for the nation's cinema. Remarkably, 2(KB was 
an even better year for the Korean domestic film box office with 
no fewer than 8 local films in the top 10, and this tendency con- 
tinued into 2004, where, as of June 10, only Troy, an early summer 
release and The Tussion of the Christ are "foreign" films which make 
the list.*'' Lhere is a lesson for all nations who wish to combat 
llollwood dominance of their home cinemas, and that is that one 
needs a theatrical quota. Under the vehemently anti-communist, 
export-driven "Third Republic" regime, established after a military 
coup in 1961, and following the repressions of the first Korean 
Motion Picture Act in 1962, the Screen Quota System was intro- 
duced in 1965 along with import restrictions on foreign films. 
Initially, the quota required that film theatres devote between 60 
and 90 days a year to the showing of domestic films and the gov- 
ernment limited the number of foreign films imported to no more 
than one third of Korean films produced each year.*'' Because of 
the emphasis placed on commercial success and the limits placed 
on the nature of what could be expressed (and, by extension, cre- 
ativity) the Korean film industry actually declined through the late 
1960s and 1970s. The opening up of society enabled by the chang- 
ing of government in 1980 to the Fifth Republic led to the revision 
of the motion picture law, which came into effect in July 1986, and 
which, among other things allowed for new film companies to be 
formed. Under the old law only "registered companies with gov- 
ernment authority could produce, import and export films." *7 
And, whereas import restrictions were lifted, allowing many more 
Hollywood films to enter Korea, the screen quota was enhanced, 
with theatre operators forced to show domestic films 40‘M» of the 
time. 

In the 196()s and 70s the number of film theatres — from 344 in 
1962 to 662 in 1973 — and Korean films produced — from 79 in 
1961 to 231 in 1970 — increased appreciably, but then declined to 
472 theatres and 96 films by 1979.*” Korean feature film produc- 
tion remained relatively stable in the 1980s at a rate of 80-90 films 
per year.*‘^ Although this has since dropped — from a high of 121 in 
1991 to a low of 43 in 1998 — until the present day, the overall 
quality of the films and the local interest in them has soared. 
Undoubtedly, in the face of a more open distribution climate, the 
percentage of foreign films available for viewing in Korea now far 
surpasses that of local product, and yet the domestic market share 
for Korean films continues to climb every year: from 15.9‘X) in 
1993 to 49.7% in 2()(J1.“** I hus, with the aid of the screen quota, 
the Korean film industry has reached the position, much like Hong 
Kong 's cinema from the 1960s through the early 199()s, where its 
local audiences prefer their own films over I lolly^wood's. 


Take Care of My Cat 



Korean Cinema, Now 

IVrhaps, with a renewed emphasis on the box office, the 
Korean cinema may have experienced an artistic downturn 
in the new millennium, or, at least since the great year, 
2002. Kyung Hyun Kim certainly feels this way, arguing in 
his book that the ''New Korean Cinema" is "finished as a 
movement" and that, "the Korean film industry since 1999 
has scrupulously followed the path of Hollywood and has 
shown more interest in making deals and formulaic genres 
than in innovating and devoting itself to the creation of 
art."-' Certainly, the demise of the serious film periodical. 
Kino is a blow to the expanding, rich film culture in Korea, 
and the box office failure of Jang Sun-woo's Tlw Resurrection 
of the Little Mutch Girl (2002), which was one of the most 
expensive Korean fihiis ever made, means that directors are 
being watched more closely by their hackers. But the 
appointment of film director Lee Chang-dong as Korea's 
Minister of Film Culture bodes very well for the future of 
film art, and the best contemporary directors continue to 
work and find ways to make interesting films. 

Iwo recent films exemplify what Korean cinema does 
best, combining art and commerce: the 2003 box ottice 
chain [)ion. Memories of Mnnler {Snrineni (Jhn-eok), directed 
by Bong Joon-ho, and the aforementioned Cannes winner, 
OUl Boy. Bong Joon-ho's first feature was the popular come- 
dy, Biirkin^i Dos^s Never Bite (Bnlmni ihihsnh eni Geh 2000), 
which counterpointed dog lovers with dog haters and even 
one man who eats dogs all inhabiting the same apartment 
complex. With Memories of Mnnler, the director continues 
his comic approach to serious social issues, hut in a much 
more dangerous vein. Fhe film's mystery/detective story, set 
in the 19S0s, is based on Korea's first case of a "serial killer". 

Interestingly, the focus of the film gradually shifts from 
the search for the identity of the rapist/killer to the police 
procedures involved, and ends by indicting the brutality of 
the police, while leaving the mystery of the murderer's 
identity intact. Fhe criminal acts are never shown, whereas 
the heatings of suspects are graphically depicted. I can 
imagine that, in a Hollywood version of this story, the 


killer's identity would he revealed at least by the end of the 
film, and, moreover, his character would be the central one. 
One could also imagine a Hollywood comedy of bungling 
police action, hut not one involving serial rape and murder. 
In embracing Mei}iories of Mnnler, Korean audiences are 
clearly much more open both to plot ambiguity and pes- 
simism (again recalling North .American audiences of the 
late 6()s and early 7()s). 

.After the box office failure of Sympiithy for Mr. \en\(eimce, 
Park Chan-wook changed his strategy , for his next film , 
Ohl Boy, by hiring the services of two Korean male stars, 
Choi Min-shik and Yu ji-tae, to play the hero and villain, 
respectively. Initially even more bizarre than Symfnithy in its 
temporal and modal shifts from gritty realism to surrealism, 
Ohl Boy brilliantly evokes the nightmarish imprisonment of 
Choi's businessman character in its first .30 minutes. 
Ultimately not as satisfying or original as its predecessor, 
Ohl Boy is very much an avant-garde work, and an even 
more surprising box office success than Memories of Murder. 
If one can imagine Michel Ciondry's Etenuil Sunshine of the 
Spotless Mind (US, 2004) without the romance, and with 
large doses of violence, one can begin to understand Park 
Cdian-wook's achievement in reaching ordinary Korean 
viewers. 

With serious works of cinematic realism like Memories of 
Mnnler and genre experiments like Old Boy appealing to 
local audiences and critics, alike, Korean cinema is at an all- 
time high point in its history. .And, remarkably, at the time 
of this writing, it is just possible that the eagerly awaited, 
highly deserved "breakthrough" for Korean cinema is actu- 
ally happening. In June 2004, three Korean films (including 
Memories of Murder) were released in France within a 10 day 
period. Kim Ki-duk's Sprins^, Summer, I'nll, Winter ... and. 
Spring is currently in its second month of commercial 
release in Toronto and is about to become the first Korean 
film to receive an art-house release in Montreal, with 
French sub-titles. Onsis is also due to receive a limited 
release in Ntontreal. There are no fewer than thirteen 
Korean films showing at Montreal's Fantasia film festival 


44 cineACTiON 




and almost all of the screenings are selling out. And, 
www.scrccmUiily.com is reporting that 5 Korean films are cur- 
rently on the worldwide, top 30, film bo.x office chart! 

rd like to thank my editor, Susan Morrison for her patience and 
rapid, hard work on making this essay much more presentable 
than it was, initially. I also thank Donato Totaro, the editor of 
www.offscreen.com for allowing some previously published mate- 
rial to appear here, and Mijeong Lee, our resident Korean film 
expert, for enabling me to see so many Korean films in Montreal. 

Peter Harry Rist teaches film studies at Concordia University in 
Montreal. Over the last seven years he has become more and 
more interested in Asian cinema, and has recently been research- 
ing links between landscape painting and early East Asian films. 

NOTES 

1 Throughout this article, I will refer to South Korea, or, the official des- 
ignation, the "Republic of Korea," simply as "Korea." This decision is 
not politically motivated, in fact, I believe that it is really important to 
recognize that there are two Koreas and that the North has at times 
been a very active film producing nation — see Hyangjin Lee's 
Contemporary Korean Cinema: Identity • Culture • Politics (Manchester 
and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000) which includes a 
great deal of discussion on North Korean film production. But, these 
days, with the tragic, desperate isolation of the communist North 
contributing to a complete absence of Its films outside its borders, it 
is perhaps justified to employ the simplified term, "Korea," in the con- 
text of contemporary film. 

2 The exception might be mainland China, with both "official" and un- 
official films, including Tian Zhuang-zhuang's Springtime in a Small 
Town, the "New Year" comedy, and box office hit. Big Shot's Funeral, 
avant-garde theatre director, Meng jinghui's first film Chicken Poets, 
Ning Ying's powerful documentary. Railroad of Hope, and, on the 
"unofficial" side, jia Zhangke's great Unknown Pleasures and Liu 
Bingjian's Cry Woman, both of which were co-produced in Korea. 

3 See Peter Rist, "Korean Cinema in Montreal," on website Offscreen, 
<http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/9709/offscreen_essay/Koreancinema. 
html> posted September 18, 1997, and, "An Introduction to Korean 
Cinema," on website. Offscreen 

<http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/9810/offscreen_essays/Korean.html>, 
posted October 16, 1998, which is the original version of "Coree: Le 
cinema des grandes promesses," translated from English to French by 
Elie Castiel, Sequences, no. 198 (Sept./Oct., 1998), pp. 32-37. 

4 Adriano Apra, editor, Le cinema careen (Paris, Editions du Centre 
Pompidou, 1993). 

5 See, Kyung Hyun Kim, The RemascuUnization of Korean Cinema 
(Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004), and Anthony 
C.Y. Leong, Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong (Victoria, B.C.: 
Trafford Publishing, 2002). Note: The author insists on referring to 
himself in the western fashion with his given names preceding his 
family name. Thus, I also refer to him as Kyung Hyun Kim. 

6 Of the 19 films directed by Im Kwon-taek, made since 1981 that I've 
seen, at least 12 were shot by )ung ll-sun including the very best, 
Mandara (Mandala, 1981), Pul-ui «o/ (Daughter of the Flames, 1983), 
Cilsottum (1986), Adada (1987), and Sopyonje (1993). It is high time 
that some consideration be given to jung's contribution to the artistry 
of those films he worked on. 

7 David E. james and Kyung Hyun Kim, eds., Im Kwon-Taek: The Making 
of a Korean National Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 
2002). This book is a collection of essays which originated in a con- 
ference on the director held at the University of Southern California in 
1996. It is also the very first book on Korean cinema published exclu- 
sively in the U.S. 

8 This is very different from the strategy used by the Farrelly Bros., who 
in Shallow Hal (200}) cast jack Black's character's imagined love inter- 
est as the glamorous Gwyneth Paltrow, whereas her real, "fat" self was 
played by another actress. 

9 I have taken these figures from the amazingly comprehensive website: 
"Darcy's Korean Film Page" <www.koreanfilm.org>. Another Korean 
film. Marrying the Mafia overtook The Way Home with 5 million admis- 
sions, and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Harry Potter: The 


Chamber of Secrets, which were released in December, also eventually 
outgrossed it. 

1 0 Both the Toronto and Vancouver festival catalogues incorrectly list the 
year of release as 2002, when, in fact. Volcano High opened in Korea 
on December 8, 2001 and ran for 5 weeks. Strictly speaking, it didn't 
place as high on the 2001 box office chart as Darcy Paquet claimed — 
according to Screen International, No. 1348 (March 15-21, 2002) it 
was 1 5th — ; Paquet notes that his admission figure includes the first 
two weeks of 2002. In his Dragons and Tigers programme notes for 
Vancouver, Tony Rayns cleverly states that "Volcano High also has a 
trump card up Its sleeve; its the perfect antidote to Harry Potter." p. 
83. 

1 1 The English language titles of Hong Sang-soo's films sometimes stray 
far from the original meaning. For example. Oh! Soo-jung, an excla- 
mation followed by the central female character's name ended up as 
Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, which is a far too lurid expression 
of what actually happens in the film. We see a man's version of his 
seduction of her, and then her own version of the story. For Turning 
Cate, according to Derek Elley, in Variety (june 24, 2002), the Korean 
title translates literally as "Life's Discoveries," whereas the original 
English title was "On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning 
Gate," which cleverly gives a very novelistic sense to the piece. I 
assume that in each case, Hong chose the English-language titles — he 
studied film in the U.S., so, presumably his command of English is 
very good — but the differences from the Korean titles are very strik- 
ing. 

12 A more extensive discussion of the Korean films at the 2002 TIFF, 
effectively a longer version of the first half of this article, entitled 
"Korean Cinema 2002" can be found at 

<http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/koreancinema_2002. 
html>, posted March 31, 2003. 

1 3 Swiri, (or Shiri), Tell Me Something (Chang Yoon-hyun, 1 999), Nowhere 
to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1 999), The Isle (Kim Ki-duk, 2000), Lies (Jang 
Sun-woo, 2000) and a few other titles have received limited distribu- 
tion in North America, but. Paramount Classics' release of The Way 
Home is the first mainstream release of a Korean film, and an art- 
house, New York-based distributor. Kino, has lost money on all three 
Korean films it has released — Nowhere to Hide, Take Care of My Cat and 
Chiwaeson — and is unlikely to take a chance on any more. 

14 Perhaps in recognition of the importance of 2002, Darcy Paquet 
devoted a few pages of his annual report to "top ten lists." See 
<http://koreanfilm.org/topten2002.html> where Hartzell writes "I 
argue that 2002 was the best damn year yet for Korean film, . . ." The 
other contributors were Paquet, Tom Giammarco and Kyu Hyun Kim. 

1 5 Again, I am indebted to "Darcy's Korean Film Pages" for the statistical 
data, and, more. See, <http://koreanfilm.org/kfilm03.html> and 
<http://koreanfilm.org/kfilm04.html>. 

16 In, Hyangjin Lee, op. cit., p. 49. See also "Industrialization in Film 
Making," In The History of Korean Cinema, Lee Young-il and Choe 
Young-chol, translated by Richard Lynn Greever (Seoul: jimoondang 
Publishing Co., 1998 [Motion Picture Promotion Corporation, 1988]), 
pp. 143-48. 

1 7 "New Chapter of Korean Film History - Freedom of Film Production," 
Lee Young-il, p. 209. 

18 All statistics are taken from Lee Young-il, p. 148, p. 187. 

19 See the annual publications of the Motion Picture Promotion 
Corporation, Republic of Korea, for example, Korea Cinema 93, which 
shows a low of 73 Korean films (made or released, it is not clear) in 
1 986 and a high of 1 1 0 in 1 989, p. 36. 

20 These statistics are taken from Korean Cinema 2002, Lee Keun-sang, 
editor (Seoul: Korean Film Commission, KOFIC, 2002), p. 218. 

21 Kyung Hyun Kim (2004), op. cit., p. x. 

*A note on names and titles: Family names (e.g., Im) normally pre- 
cede given names (e.g., Kwon-taek) in Korean. I follow the most con- 
temporary transliterated spelling and don't capitalize the second part of 
the given name. In the past, a number of different transliteration systems 
have proliferated, but, perhaps looking ahead to the World Cup of 
Football (Soccer) in 2002, the Korean government adopted a standard- 
ised new romanisation system in 2000. This eliminates apostrophes 
("taek" used to be written "t'aek) and standardises consonants (all "b"s 
and "p"s are now written as "b"). Nevertheless, whereas the film festival 
towns of Pusan and Puchon have become "Busan" and "Bucheon," the 
international film festivals in these towns have retained the original 
transliteration for the sake of retaining their acronyms: "PIFF" for Pusan 
International Film Festival and "PiFan" for the Puchon International 
Fantastic Film Festival. 


cineACTiON 45 


Striking Home 

TRENDS AND CHANGES 
IN VIETNAMESE CINEMA 


BY KIM WORTHY 

Not bad for a cadre-dominated movie industry in 
which the People's Army runs the major studio and 
one of last year's acclaimed films is titled, Hai Binh 
Builds a Hydropower Plant. ^ 

—TIME/Asia (Hanoi), commenting on Bar Girls (Cay Nhai), a 2003 state- 
produced Vietnamese film which generated $1 million in revenue. 

TIME/Asia’s quip, while true, is unfair. In recent years, Giaiphong 
Films (the People's studio) has also made movies that have 
received international praise, including Guava Season (Mua Oi, 
Dang Nhat Minh, 2001) and The Glorious Time in Me Thao (Me 
Thao — Thoi Vang Bong, Viet Linh, 2002). A rave review in Variety 



of the state-produced Kin^ of the Riihhish Dump ( Viui Bui 
Rut h, aka Foul Kiu^^, which premiered out of competition at 
Palm Springs in 2003), compared the skills and humanity of 
longtime Vietnamese writer-director Do Minh Tuan to Kenji 
Mizoguchi.2 Meanwhile, the second film produced by a pri- 
vate studio (the first was Bur Girls 2), Lon^-Lix^iCil Girls 
{Nhun\i Co Gui Chuu Dui, 2004), about the fashion industry 
in Viet Nam, is also a blockbuster. All this, and the latter's 
very young director, Vu Ngoc Dang was in 1996 the first 
graduate of the film-director degree at Ho Chi Minh City 
College for Theatre and Cinema. 

While the young urban Vietnamese consider those pro- 
ductions which urge remembrance of past deprivations by 
older directors from the past two decades banal, trite, and 
boring, these films nevertheless interest foreigners and rural 
Vietnamese.^ The newer films' recent commercialism may 
be seen as a pragmatic response to a new social system based 
on economic change, and may also be read as a discourse 
rebelling against political suffocation. But the earlier films 
say much about Viet Nam that speaks for the young too. 
They not only commemorate the suffering of war, but may 
be read as signifying the trauma of political and artistic self- 
censorship, and the yearning for expression of a suffocated 
national consciousness. 

Senses of aesthetic value vary across the cinemas of 
whole cultures as well as from film to film. But cross-cur- 
rents in Vietnamese film seem to reflect social and political 
disturbances within this particular society in this particular 
period, rather than the work of individual uutcurs. Key 
Chow, Chris Berry, and Susan Jeffords argue that scenes that 
are over-the-top may express an art of national trauma in 
various films, genres, and cinemas.-* They cite the 
Tiananmen Square massacres in China and the dividedness 
that in the US resulted from the traumatic Vietnam war, as 
sources of compensatory hysteria in the cinemas of those 
nations. An equally fragmenting national shock is percepti- 
ble in Vietnamese films by both the older and the younger 
generation of directors. In Vietnam the hysterical cross-cur- 
rent may be attributable not simply to violence, as in the 
case of China and the US, but to the combination of unbe- 
lievable loss and the betrayal of ideals. Do Minh Tuan 
agrees that bizarre moments in Vietnamese film reflect 
severe and unbalancing disturbances: "We address the psy- 
chological suffering through our abnormalities.'"' Added to 
all of this, the "abnormalities" might signify the precarious 
and contradictory psychological position of Vietnamese 
directors themselves, as government officials who must 
enforce censorship of their own movies. 

rhe most significant recent trauma for Viet Nam was 
three decades of war and its aftermath. The American war 
came not long after the defeat of the French and independ- 
ence in 1945. It took two million lives, and another million 
as a result of injuries and aftereffects from unexploded 
bombs, landmines, and Agent Orange. After that war, bor- 
der skirmishes with China and the invasion of Cambodia 

FACING PACE: The new Viet Nam: Le Hoang's Bar Girls. 


cost more lives and money. Since then radical tensions 
between populace and state created half a million 
Vietnamese refugees. Terrible poverty came as a result of 
war and the twenty-year trade embargo; in 1990 the pover- 
ty rate was greater than 60%.<' 

Even though Vietnamese directors were among the elite 
in an impoverished time, in the 1980s and 90s they were in 
the uncomfortable position of artists and writers in any 
totalitarian state who want to entertain and create some- 
thing beautiful but have to watch their step. Moreover, 
from the early days on, the directors were the Party. 
Approval of the start of production came from the Deputy 
General Director of the Viet Nam Cinema Department of the 
Culture Ministry. For decades, this position was filled by the 
illustrious filmmaker, Nguyen Thu. As director Dang Nhat 
Minh observed in 1988, "Who is the government? It's Mr. 
'Fhu!"7 Ihe censor being situated within the filmmakers 
themselves likely adds to the manifestation of "abnormal" 
moments. Across many films, a multiplicity of visual, musi- 
cal, and dialogic excesses creates recognition of the massive- 
ly-suffering Vietnamese consciousness through a certain 
deviance, outlined below. 

While many younger directors also want to ignore the 
past, they have new traumas to contend with in the face of 
the enormous economic changes. Fhc Socialist Republic of 
Viet Nam has had a market-driven economy since 1995 
after Clinton's 1994 lifting of the US trade embargo against 
its former enemy. The poverty rate fell from bO'K) in 1990 to 
an incredible 1 1 % by 2003. Although this naturally eased 
hardship at every level, even in the most rural and moun- 
tainous areas of the country, it also rapidly brought inequal- 
ity and other serious social problems, especially greed and 
corruption. Foday intellectuals in Viet Nam say the country 
combines the worst of both socialism and capitalism. Party 
cadres are regarded as elite, dictatorial opportunists. 
Revolutionaries who made incredible sacrifices to get rid of 
foreigners now see the "return of the living dead": Hiltons, 
KFCs, CNN on cable. Corruption is an open secret, morali- 
ty said to be completely replaced by no-holds-barred, IMF- 
style capitalism. The Party seeks foreign investment for all 
economic problems, encouraging profit from Viet Nam's 
cheap labor.** 

Another cultural shock of the new economy is the army 
of tourists invading the countryside. The tourism industry 
ignores the country's painful past, transforming it back into 
a French colony or a nostalgia package for US war veterans. 
Threats to Vietnamese control of its self-image have thus 
come with the drive for corporate investment, as the coun- 
try now' "belongs" to others besides the people themselves. 
New hotels and golf resorts are like gold for officials w'hose 
institutions occupy the land.'* It is feared that after all the 
victories over foreign domination, the new films will simi- 
larly offer up Viet Nam in the service of foreign values.**’ 
Asked w'hether the making of films like his would strength- 
en or w'eaken Vietnamese identity. Bur Girls w'riter-director 


cineACTiON 47 



Le Hoanj; replied smiling, “Strengthen it. Because it could- 
n't get any weaker. 

This pre-capitalist socialist society has apparently come 
to embrace the e.xploitative strain of commercial cinema as 
part of the government's shift towards globalization. 
Understandably, filmmakers like Le Hoang who were for- 
merly obligated to the government for every of sup- 
port are e.xcited over the prospect of greater freedom. 
Resistance and criticism in the earlier films, whether overt 
or covert, was always compromised by the obligation to the 
party for funds. Hie over-the-top moments of many films 
may liave been an unconscious expression of this disor- 
dered state of affairs as well as of the suffering of the 
Vietnamese people, through content and images of uncon- 
trollable emotion. 

Background 

Other than French productions after World War I, produc- 
tion by Vietnamese in Vietnamese language began only in 
19:^S with Dam Quang Thien's I'hc Flower from the 
Cemeter\\^- Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam Feature Film Studio 
produced its first narrative. The Some River, in 1959. Since 
then the industry has produced only three hundred fea- 
tures, with technicians and artists educated or trained 
abroad, mostly in Soviet Bloc countries. It was strictly a 
communist enterprise in a country run by the thirteen-man 
Politburo, nominally accountable to the Central 
Committee of the Lao Dong (Workers Party). The top man- 
agement was always comprised of filmmakers, hut the 
atmosphere for making films was never free of overbearing 


ideological influence.'^ Vietnamese reviews were heavily 
pro-communist. 

V^ietnamese films began moving toward greater freedom 
of expression in the early 198()s. While criticism of the 
Socialist Republic was very rarely overt, films did use the 
power to protest in varying degrees. The first modern 
Vietnamese film, How To Hehove: A Stor}' About Kimlness 
(Tran Van I buy, 1985), is about the first anniversary of the 
death of a film director whom the film crew had visited on 
his deathbed. In this remarkable rambling, pre-du/ moi doc- 
umentary, the self-mocking narrator makes no attempt to 
camouflage political discourse. “The People's Iheatre," 
the voiceover sneers, “ Fhe People's Council, I he People's 
Police... devoted to the people. What's that mean?" At one 
point an angry bricklayer yells at the film crew, “Hey, why 
don't you guys get a real job?" Later the narrator says, “But 
who'd give up comfort and power to live an ordinary life? 
I here's the contradiction. Our commentary rambles on and 
will test the censor's patience..." 

Not only the direct reference to the censor here, hut the 
self-criticism, is testimony to the dynamics involved when 
humane investigation meets economic and political diffi- 
culty. Implicit under its careless gaiety is uneasiness about 
the filmmakers' own position. At the same time that they 
are Party bureaucrats, they are artists, for whom by defini- 
tion free expression is essential. 

F.ven since lioi moi, the implicit criticism of the 
Vietnamese government by artists, writers, and filmmakers 
voicing the malaise of impoverished people who willingly 
bore great burdens under terrible conditions but had been 


sold out, was met with varying degrees of tolerance. But 
Mark Philip Bradley argues that even the most revisionist 
films (those of the I98()s) present a critique of contempo- 
rary society, albeit largely conservative. I'heir remem- 
brances of revolutionary egalitarianism struck home against 
the corrupt and repressive elements of postwar society and 
its newly capitalist materialism. 

Vietnamese Films of the Late 80s and 90s 

For comparison to Vietnamese cinema today, I will focus on 
five feature films released in Viet 
Nam after iloi ntoi as a body of 
discourse that offers cinematic 
resistance to the power elite: 77/t' 

Retired (ieneriil (I'uon^i Ve Him^, 

Dang Nhat Minh, 1988), 

Luck Trier (Vietnamese title 
unavailable; lu Huy, 1989), Rhiek 
(.iictiises (Vietnamese title 
unavailable; Le Dan, 1991), The 
Strolling Sin^ters (Doi Hiit Ron\i, 

Cdiau Rue, 1991), and NosUil^^iu 
for the Coiintry siiie {Thuon;^ Nhu 
Don^ Qiie, Dang Nhat Minh, 

1995).*'’ I will also point out the 
instances of "abnormality" that 
give them uniqueness beyond 
their humanitarianism and 
political critique 

Serious risks were taken in the well-known The Retired 
iieiierid (1988), adapted from a popular 198h story by 
Nguyen Huy Thiep. Fhe tone is set when General Thuan's 
unit brings him home to his son's house, where vicious 
Cierman shepherds lunge at him. Small but disturbing signs 
convey corruption and uneasiness — the music at the celebra- 
tory feast is loud, the accolades false, and a relative given cig- 
arettes to distribute to the poor at the gate keeps them, sub- 
stituting a cheaper brand. The general's insane wife pan- 
tomimes gun battles and the family arrogantly e.xploits two 
homeless villagers as servants. 

The son's wife I huy breeds the dogs to sell and treats them 
better than the humans in her care. The general observes her 
concern only with money and status, as well as her adultery. 
He doesn't know she is taking money for his letters, written 
from kindness, recommending village sons to Army officials. 
An idealist, the general tries to help the suffering servants, 
sending them back to their village with money, only to learn 
later that the man is dead and his niece, Lai, has become a 
prostitute. I he general's wife dies, the funeral is an oppor- 
tunistic mockery, and the general suffers mightily. F.ventually 
he discovers a neighbor quarreling loudly with Thuy over 
money paid for one of the general's letters which did not 
have the desired result. I he general, who has high blood pres- 
sure, hears about this scam in shock and disbelief, climbs the 
stairs rubbing his temples, and dies. 

Both story and film were remarkable when released for 
challenging the official image of Viet Nam as a nation uni- 
fied by the ideals and sacrifice the general represents. In the 
last two scenes, unprecedented stylistic effects occur: the 

ABOVE; Dang Nhat Minh's Nostalgia for the Countryside 


frame turns upside-down when the general hears of Lai's 
fate; the general narrates in voiceover for the first time; the 
camera holds objects In LCD for the first time; and we see 
the film's only LLS of the landscape. Because of their psy- 
chological overtones, one would e.xpect these elements to 
push the origins of the hero's collapse further toward 
merely personal tragedy. Instead they help restore to earli- 
er scenes the sense that the new society, born of rapid 
urbanizatioFi and economic crisis, is at the root of the fam- 
ily's behavior. Lhey attach themselves to the meaning 
siq^plied by Lai's "fall" — that 
money has replaced kindness as 
the guiding light. 

In The Retired (ienend the 
scene that most graphically crit- 
icizes corrupt and repressive ele- 
ments of postwar society and its 
newly capitalist materialism is 
the feeding of the Alsatian pup- 
pies which Thuy favors over 
people. The director chooses to 
display the aborted fetuses 
minced and lovingly fed to the 
dogs on-screen rather than 
referring to this practice in dia- 
logue. The repugnant deed is 
first served up bluntly to the 
audience, then filtered through 
a stylistic concentration on fam- 
ily interaction and human emotion. Nguyen Khac Loi's 
careful lighting and camerawork center our interest entire- 
ly on the old actor's performance — on the human face of 
obsolete ideals rather than on an obscene cynicism. 

The Retired General was the first of many stories about 
veterans who willingly bore the great burdens under terri- 
ble conditions, returning to deep depression upon fifiding 
corruption and self-seeking among the impoverished city 
people and consequently feeling that they had been 
betrayed. Unfortunately, it was the young, postwar genera- 
tion and especially women who were the main target for 
blame. Gendered evil extends in other Vietnamese movies 
to distrust of the market economy; for example, see RUuk 
( All t uses below. 

Many post-doi nioi Vietnamese movies commented more 
subtly on the people's idealistic victory having resulted in a 
totalitarian state, for example through exposing the result- 
ing moral and emotional confusion. An iconic, low-angle 
shot of a strong young woman in the distinctive conical 
hat, deftly poling her boat under a bridge in The Girl on the 
River (Cu Hui Tren Sonx; Dang Nhat Minh, 1987) works 
equally well as family photograph and as nationalist 
metaphor; but the woman, like Viet Nam since 1975, has a 
"painful past": she has been corrupted. 

A highly watchable returned-veteran film criticizing the 
economy is Luck Trier (1989). This funny but finally deadly 
serious story is well hammered-together and, while the film 
too frequently suffers from lugubrious timing and to a certain 
extent also inadvertently promotes the very thing It explicitly 
condemns (the dream of easy riches), the photography. 



cineACTiON 49 


sound, and acting are good. Its antihero symbolizes the urban 
poor who are manipulated through the need tor hope. 

A high-ranking Army officer, Khien, so poor he receives 
bicycle parts in lieu of wages, is addicted to playing the lot- 
tery, and rationalizes his foolishness as an investment to 
support his wife and four children. Also, the dyke protecting 
the land where his ancestors are buried is crumbling into the 
river as flood season approaches. Khien's family is starving, 
his wife leaves him, he loses his job but manages to acquire 
a bicycle pump and find a spot on a busy street to set up busi- 
ness. He can't even make a meager living in Ha Noi due to 
the corrupt interference with the vendors by the police. 
When he sells his pump to buy a lottery number, Khien's 
pitch that the pump is the best kind in the world because it 
was "made in Viet Nam" turns out to be the worst thing he 
could say — no one will even trade for it. This is a tragicomic 
commentary on the failures of national production at a lib- 
erating distance from an official "line." 

rhe first few frames turn out to be the film's penultimate 
scene, making the entire movie one long flashback. Khien 
faints as a winning number is called that we think is his, but 
the same sequence is played backwards at the end of the film 
and we learn he arrived too late at the ticket-seller's with 
money for the winning ticket. This novel structure under- 
scores the more familiar frame of the flashback to construct 
of Khien a social type, interchangeable with anyone in the 
crowd (or with the film viewer), who could just as easily 
become caught in the circle of dream, pursuit, and loss. 

At one point Khien looks straight at the camera, 
announcing to the audience, "I'd be respected if I hit the 
jackpot." On one level this remark bemoans the disintegra- 
tion of regard for age and hard work, but like How to Behove 
(1985), The Retired Getierol, The 5Tru/////x Shivers (1991), and 
Hostoiiui for the Cotnitr\>side (1995), it also points to the gov- 
ernment's betrayal of those who served. On yet another 
level. Luck Trier induces excitement for the lottery even as it 
warns us off. In a manner that prefigures Bor iorls (2005), at 
times Luck Trier, like its hero, urges spectators in the oppo- 
site direction from the film's intended moralizing message, 
that gambling is destructive. Complaints about the terrible 
state of the economy in Luck Trier inadvertently create 
enthusiasm for the prospect of quick riches. Bor (Hrls arous- 
es the Vietnamese public's appetite for nightclubs even as it 
delivers its sermon on drugs and AlHs. 

Also making the case for trying one's own luck is the 
film's narrative structure. Khien dreams the lucky number 
and he only just misses buying it. The film implies that he 
was right to insist he could hit it big and it endorses Khien's 
hopes directly in his most rational speech on the subject, 
wliich goes virtually unrefuted in/by the film: "Hundreds 
become rich each day [through the lottery). Without hope 
how can people live in hardship?" I'he combination in Luck 
Trier of both criticism against the government responsible 
for Viet Nam's terrible economy, and indulgence in the cap- 
italist fantasy indicates the essentially bipolar character of 
Vietnamese filmmakers' position. 

In The Strolling Singers {Doi Hot Rons, Chau Rue, 1991) 
returned veterans' sacrifices earn them only joblessness 
after the war, poverty and urban decadence dissolve tradi- 


tional social bonds, and the poor find refuge in poetry and 
music. The central veteran character. Hung, leaves the 
People's Hospital after two years with his injured eyes almost 
cured, and not realizing that his pretty wife Tran is off sleep- 
ing with Lan, a local hoodlum. Hung's devoted war buddy 
Long keeps the facts well hidden because the shock of Pran's 
betrayal could blind Hung. Long, having himself lost a leg in 
the war, repairs shoes for a living on the steps of a public 
fountain, where Hung hangs out with him, saddened by his 
wife's indifference. Another woman, Mai, hears Hung sing 
about "the road, the wind, the mountain, where the forest 
waits for the birds, blue clouds continue on their weary way, 
and the distant star wanders endlessly." One night when 
Fran turns up her nose at a meal he has made. Hung in anger 
smashes everything, including his guitar. She leaves him for 
good, and he goes completely blind. Mai visits Hung to learn 
his beautiful song, but Hung still loves Tran, whom Lan has 
forced to work as a bar girl. Tran has a change of heart 
towards Hung, but is wise enough to let him go. Hung 
resigns himself to living without Tran, with Mai in a new 
house provided by the Disabled Veterans Bureau. 

The gentle Vietnamese songs Hung sings convey nostal- 
gia for their honest values, a trait typical of films by the 
older generation. Despite this conservative tone, and the 
film's plug for the government in the end. Singers took a 
chance presenting an image of disillusionment in jarring 
contrast to government propaganda. 

Lhe beautifully-filmed Block Coctuses (1991) registers as a 
pointed reminder of the failures of Vietnamese commu- 
nism. Lai is a half-Vietnamese, half-African American 
young hero, one of the many thousands of hui doi or "dust 
of life," as other Vietnamese call the Asian-Americans for- 
bidden schooling or jobs because their fathers were Cds. 

Lai is angry and well on his way to self-destruction when 
he rescues from would-be rapists Ma, a young w^oman 
belonging to a minority ethnic group, the Cham. I hey fall 
in love but each young person's family is prejudiced against 
the other. Ma becomes pregnant and is throw^n out to live 
with Lai. Hiey build a little shed by the railroad tracks and 
Lai struggles hard as a farmer, but after a drought dries up 
his corn he leaves for Ho Chi Minh City to find work. Ma is 
injured in an accident at the former US army base wliere, 
along with other desperately poor people, she gathered 
scraps to survive and feed the baby. After a bad experience 
in the city as a gigolo, Lai reunites with his wife and child. 

Director Le manages to make honorable the lives of what 
Americans would call "the homeless".*^ He records the 
coexistence of struggle and serenity in 1990s Viet Nam, 
enhancing the interconnection of individual, community, 
and place with images of a canal and silhouetted oxen; a 
rural tea hut w here crickets sing; the moon and clouds over 
a temple of a Cham community; yaks and goats grazing 
under trees as trains cross against the mountains. But Le 
Dan's camera never abandons his central image, the cactus. 
Like the prostitute in The Girl on the River, it draws to itselt 
a number of universal meanings and also carries a political 
critique. In the prologue, Lai, the strong, silent hate object 
of the more prejudiced locals because he is hui doi, smashes 
a cactus with his bare foot, grinding it to show how tough 


50 cineACTiON 



Le Dan's Black Cactuses. 


he is. I'he cactus here introduces anotlier politically-sensi- 
tive theme: the self-hatred resulting from the double 
betrayal of children by US soldiers and of Vietnamese by 
the Vietnamese government. I he cactus appears in flower 
during Lai's courtship of Ma; its fruit is picked and eaten 
by Ma and her friends just before we learn Ma is pregnant; 
and when a wicked seducer in Ho C.hi Minh City who 
wants to e.xploit the 19S7 .Amerasian Homecoming Act to 
get into the US as Lai's “accompanying relative'' holds Lai 
virtually prisoner, a cactus is also captive in a pot in Lai's 
“cell." Symbolizing a generation's pain and strength in its 
hardiness, this flourishing desert plant is an icon, but 
scarcely the kind of image to please the aging officials 
responsible. 

Nostul^liu for the Countryside (1995), like Vhe Retired 
Cenerul, is based on a story by Nguyen Huy Thiep. Many- 
layered like the story from which it is adapted, the film cen- 
ters around seventeen-year old Nham, who lives near a rural 
village in Northern Viet Nam. His real interest is poetry but 
he quit school to support his mother, his sister-in-law Ngu, 
and younger sister Minh, making bricks and planting and 
harvesting the family fields. His beautiful cousin, Quyen, 
comes for a visit, arousing Nham's fantasies. There is also a 
subplot about village adultery, and a tragic highway acci- 
dent in which young Minh is killed. 

The film satirizes the Party's mindless use of rhetoric 
through a jargon-spouting schoolteacher. Pontificating 
(however justifiably) on “the peasant's suffering,'' he steps 
in e.xcrement — a funny moment showing the film's opinion 
of this communist bore. A marvelous water puppets play- 
within-a-play of the laboring farmers planting rice is per- 
fectly situated to precede this lecture with contrasting 
unpretentious affection for the peasant. 

A serious scene from Nostiil\iiii for the Countryside sent 


New York viewers at the Museum of Modern Art into roars 
of laughter. When Ngu, abandoned by her husband and 
very lonely, embraces Nham, he ejaculates. Opening his 
eyes afterwards he actually reaches inside his pants, then 
looks at wet fingers. To westerners, it seemed extremely 
inappropriate. I'he graphic quality of this moment broke 
the spell of romance for western viewers; but before the 
chortling ceased, the film threw the audience into further 
fits with Nham's words, in voiceover and Lnglish subtitles 
above exaggeratedly emotional chords: “From that 
moment, 1 became a man.'' This was followed by an insert, 
apparently unconnected, of a dog licking ice cream that 
had fallen on the ground, which must have struck western 
viewers as showing a staggering lack of discernment given 
the context. 

However, the “excess" described here is not in the origi- 
nal story as written. The closest allusion there to Nham's 
cinematic ejaculation is these lines in Nham's poem about 
the connection of the fields to human life and death: 

At that moment. Oh, Friend, Oh my young friend 

Please understand me 

I tried to make the fields so fertile^ ^ 

The speaker is a wounded soldier and blood is spilled, not 
semen. In adapting the film from the story, director Minh 
deliberately and disconcertingly made literal the originally 
figurative fertility image. 

Fhrough such choices, Minh and other Vietnamese film- 
makers may have been attempting to break out of the con- 
ditions existing at the time. These moments suggest after so 
many attacks and complicities an identity at least partially 
defined through the iteration of images and ideas that are 
normally repressed. 


cineACTiON 51 


The Situation Today 

This is ail interesting time for Vietnamese film. On January 
1, 2003, the Ministry of Culture and Information decreed 
the production and distribution of film a commodity regu- 
lated by business law. foreign films appear in the country's 
remaining cinemas— everything from action films to 
Fithiinsi Nenw. Vietnamese films compete with all this on a 
pitiful advertising budget. 

At this point, 1 will look at some recent films, by a more 
traditional director, Viet Linh ( /7/c Glorious Time in Me Thuo 
lliunlet, 2002), and by filmmakers who have embraced the 
llollywHiod style: Le Hoang {Rur Girls, 2003, and Bur Girls 2, 
2004) and Vu Ngoc Dang (Lon\i~Le;^eil Girls, 2004). As noted 
earlier. Bur Girls 2 was the first non-state film made and 
financed by Vietnamese by a private studio, Galaxy, /.unx- 
Le^^\ieil Girls was the second. 

riie huge hit status of the state-produced Bur Girls (200.3) 
marked a new^ direction in expressive freedom. One of the 
lead characters is addicted to drugs and dies from a willful 
overdose, the other gets HlV/AlHs, falls in love with a nice 
man, discovers he is married, is chastened, and reforms. 
Many scenes belie the assumption that the film's populari- 
ty came only from pandering to the temporary tastes of 
young Vietnamese audiences. Called to a party on a boat 
which turns out to be a set-up for rape, another young 
woman dives into the river and swims to shore. Original 
music kicks in as she hits the water. Her strength and 
resilience, depicted by her indifference as she sits afterwards 
drying her hair and chatting with her mother, might he 
regarded as peculiarly Vietnamese. 

No such distinctive moments occur in Bur Girls 2 


{Ciihlerellu of the Streets, 2004), a more ordinary effort— 
unsurprisingly, as the sequel was intended to capitalize on 
the original's success.*'^ The male lead is real-life megastar 
Vietnamese pop singer, Quang Hung, who takes up with 
My, the Cinderella bar girl of the title. Locations are fancy 
restaurants, resort swimming pools, and a hotel, wiiere 
thugs torture My to persuade her to return to the trade. A 
concert audience w'aits for Quang Dung who does not want 
to leave My's hospital room. When he finally performs to 
save the desperate manager and appease the people. My 
miraculously appears onstage to dance, only to collapse at 
the end. Quang carries her, limp but still breathing, out 
through the crowd. 

Concerts hookend both Bur Girls 2 and an earlier film. 
The Glorious Time in Me Thuo Humlet {2002): wiiile Quang 
Dung performs pop music at the start and close of the first 
film, the heautiful cu tru music of Hanoi is performed in the 
second. Me Thuo, set at the start of the twentieth century, is 
the story of a musician escaping from a murder charge and 
forced to part from his lover, a great singer, to come to Me 
lhao hamlet. He finds that the rich hamlet chief, w^iose 
beloved has been killed in a car accident, has ordered every 
modern object — mirrors, clocks, dolls, bicycles — burned, 
not as an offering to the dead, but because the automobile 
caused his grief. A mute servant girl, desperately in love 
with the crazed lord, pretends to be the dead w^oman at 
night as he prays to her at her altar. The servant girl tries 
every way she can to make him forget, chewing a ceramic 
shard to bloody her lips and entice him, and dragging a 
statue he carved of his lover to the lake to drow^n. In return 
the chief orders that she he drow'ned. 

Viet Linh's The Glorious Time in Me Thao Hamlet. 



The musician, who is the emotional and narrative center 
of the story, rescues her. Fhe lord goes against tradition by 
holding a “God's light" ceremony, his servants lotting the 
paper lanterns high into the night sky. As a result of his 
hubris, he becomes deathly ill. The musician knows the 
only way to cure the nobleman is to play for him on a 
cursed dun day, a lute-like instrument, with his former lover 
accompanying him with her voice. The musician plays and 
dies, the master is restored to health and sanity and frees his 
servant. I'lie people happily bring out hidden record-play- 
ers and other modern objects. 

The politics of Viet Nam and Vietnamese filmmaking is 
discernible through both the state production, \ie Thao, 
and the private. Bar Girls 2, Each traces the connections of 
appearance and reality. 1 he mute in Me Thao and My in Bar 
Girls 2 both seem lowly but their essential purity is ulti- 
mately recognized, just as the Party wants to be recognized 
as socialist beneath its capitalist veneer, and as Vietnamese 
directors would like to be the free artists they are not. My's 
limp form in the arms of her adoring lover in the last 
moment in Bar Girls 2 resembles a remarkable image in Me 
Thao in which the bereaved nobleman is having sex with 
the life-sized wooden statue he has carved of his elegant 
dead beloved. These extravagant and melodramatic 
moments in each film inflect the hope of bringing the 
desired object back to life through sheer romantic will. 

In addition, in Bar Girls 2, the viewer is very often at a 
loss as to whether what they are watching is happening in 
the story world or is a film being made. In a subplot, scenes 
are frequently ended abruptly by a director calling, “Cut!" 
and we realize what we just saw was part of the movie being 
made within the movie. Underlying the endorsement of the 
modern twentieth-century commodities in Me Thao, the 
upscale locations Bar Girls 2 and the film's nouveau va^ite 
self-reflexive film-within-a-film, is both stories' strong iden- 
tification with the artistic vision. I hey move toward an ide- 
ology identifying consumption of art and music as progres- 
sive and social-minded. In the end, however, both stories 
esteem artists who sacrifice self for community. Both the 
new-style Vietnamese director, Le Hoang, and the old-style, 
Viet Einh, working in the Vietnamese film industry today 
thus manage to affirm artistic autonomy and socialist val- 
ues, simultaneously. 

Likewise, another new film, Girls, dismisses, 

but then upholds the old moralism. A beautiful young 
woman from the country, Vien, becomes a model with the 
help of a young photographer, drops him for a more pow- 
erful photographer (and foot-fetishist), and is eventually 
disappointed by the fashion world's corruption. She comes 
to her own conclusions herself, not heeding her strict older 
sister. 

Viet Nam today is a very different place than it was in 
the past. Vietnamese identity includes not only the of 
the population who are under 25 and the 8(TK) w ho still live 
in rural areas, but also the hundreds of gay Vietnamese men 
in genuine Versace and Calvin Klein wiio gather every 
Sunday for brunch at the Phuong Cac Cafe in Ho Chi Minh 
City.“‘* The Communist Party bureaucracy still consists of 
filmmakers as censors, but they no longer control the 


resources. A less over-the-top but still meaningful and appeal- 
ing mix of socialism and capitalism will therefore perhaps 
characterize future films from postsocialist Viet Nam. 

Kim VS/orthy teaches film studies and literature at Wagner College 
in New York City. Her writing about Vietnam war films has 
appeared in Cineaste, Vietnam War Films, one/ The United States 
and Viet Nam: From War to Peace. 

NOTES 

1 "Social Evil Sells: Vietnam's Government Is Staying on Message by 
Packaging the Party Line with a Little Sex Appeal," May 12, 2003, 
161:18. My deep gratitude to a generous travel grant from the 
Vietnamese American Scholarship Fund. Also to Vu Khanh Tung and 
Nguyen Thu Hien for sorting me out in Ha Noi, and Thuy Vy Pham 
Ngoc in HCM City. Many thanks to the diligent Susan Morrison 

2 "Foul King", Robert Koehler, www.variety.com, posted jan. 29, 2003 

3 See Phan Dinh Mau, "The War and Vietnamese Films," in )ean-jacques 
Malo and Tony Williams, Vietnam War Films, McFarland, 1 994 

4 Chris Berry, "A Nation T(w/o)o: Chinese Cinema(s) and 
Nationhood(s)," Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, ed. W. 
Dissanayake, Indiana U. Press, 1994, p. 42; Susan Jeffords, The 
Abandoned Field (Canh Dong Hoang, aka The Wild Field), in Malo 
A/Villiams, p. 2; The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the 
Vietnam War, Indiana U. Press, 1 989 

5 Conversation, July 2004 

6 United Nations Development Program, "Milennium Development 
Goals," 2002 

7 John Chariot, "Vietnamese Cinema: First Views," Colonialism and 
Nationalism in Asian Cinema, p. 1 08 

8 Pepe Escobar, "Vietnam, Leninism and Capitalism," Asia Times, 
SI27/2003. See also Henry Kamm, Dragon Ascending: Vietnam and the 
Vietnamese, Arcade, 1996, pp. 237-8 

9 Laurel B. Kennedy and Mary Rose Williams, "The Past without the Pain: 
The Manufacture of Nostalgia in Vietnam's Tourism Industry," The 
Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, ed. Hue- 
Tarn Ho Tai, U. Cal. Press, 2001, p. 1 35; Robert Templer, Shadows and 
Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam, Penguin, 1 999, pp. 8-9; Kamm, p. 54 

10 Personal e-mail, Michael DiGregorio, Ford Foundation/Hanoi, April 15, 
2004 

1 1 Conversation, July 2004 

12 Vietnamese name unavailable. Pham Ngoc Truong, "Vietnamese 
Cinema from Its Origins to 1945," Framework, v. 25, 1985, p. 68 

1 3 Viet Nam. "The Vietnam Feature Film Studio," 2004 document; 
Chariot, p.l08 

1 4 Do; moi is the 1 986 policy of renovation and "mixed economy" similar 
to Perestroika in the Soviet Union 

15 "Contests of Memory: Remembering and Forgetting War in the 
Contemporary Vietnamese Cinema," The Country of Memory: Remaking 
the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, p. 221 

16 For a fuller treatment of the older films How To Behave, The Retired 
General, The Girl on the River and others, see Chariot and Malo and 
Williams; Malo, "Interview with Dang Nhat Minh," Viet Nam 
Generation 7:1-2, 1996, pp. 96-101; Karen jaehne, "When the 
Shooting Stopped... and the Filming began," Cineaste 17:2, 1989, pp. 
32-37; Gina Marchetti, "Excess and Understatement: War, Romance, 
and the Melodrama in Contemporary Vietnamese Cinema," Genders 
10, Spring 1991: pp. 47-74; and Mark Philip Bradley, "Contests of 
Memory: Remembering and Forgetting War in the Contemporary 
Vietnamese Cinema," The Country of Memory, p. 221 

1 7 cf. a similar reminder in Satoshi Kan's 2003 Japanese anime, Tokyo 
Godfathers. For an erudite discussion of "human detritus," see Stam, 
"Beyond Third Cinema: The Aesthetics of Hybridity," in Rethinking 
Third Cinema, ed. Anthony R. Guneratne and Wimal Dissanayake, 
Routledge, 2003, pp. 31-46 

18 John Balaban and Nguyen Qui Due, eds., Vietnam: A Traveler's Literary 
Companion, Whereabouts Press, 1996, pp. 152-177 

19 Johnson, "Social Evil Sells." Before Bar Girls Le Hoang made war films, 
notably The Golden Key (2000), The Long Journey (2001 ), and The 
Knife's Edge (1995) 

20 Robert Templer, Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam, 
Penguin, 1999, pp. 348-49 


cineACTiON 53 


Takashi Miike's 
Cinema of Outrage 



Despite Western art cinema audi- 
ences' appreciation of canonical works 
of Japanese cinema as represented by 
Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and 
Yasujiro Ozu, most devotees tend to 
forget that a popular cinema existed 
during the same period, apart from 
Toho's original Godzilla series, which 
never gained Western attention until 
fairly recently via cable and DVD/VHS 
distribution. This cinema co-existed 
with those prestigious works chosen 
for screening abroad at film festivals 
and art house cinemas. They also had 
much to say about changing social 
movements within Japanese society 
In ways similar to those revered works. 
Takashi Miike's films represent the 
contemporary incarnation of this vital 
populist tradition. 


Takashi Miike was horn in 1960 and has operated entirely within the e.xcessive 
realms of a populist Japanese cinema not commonly known to the Western 
world. Miike grew up in the working-class Kawachi District of Osaka whose 
multicultural associations contrasted with the usual image of Japanese society 
as a homogenous wx:)rld of salarymen and demure wives and daughters. Film 
was not his first career choice. Fnthusiastically devoted to pachinko, mt)torcy- 
cies, and rock music, Miike wished to become a rock singer. However, after 
attending Shohei Imamura's film school in Yokohama, he began w'orking as 
assistant director on Imamura's Ze^en (1987) and Bhuk Rain ( 1989) before grad- 
ually cutting his teeth as director on direct-to-video films such as Eye Catch 
Junction {Topnn! Minipato Tai 1991) and making his feature film debut with The 
Third Canister {Daisan no Coknndo 199S). Miike has worked continually in film, 
video, and television, changing from one format to another in a manner incon- 
ceivable in the West, w here talents are usually confined to a particular area and 
those who combine multiple artistic aspirations arc regarded with suspicion. He 
often takes over recognized genres within Japanese cinema such as gangster 
movies, historical dramas (Sahn 2002), and rock movies (Andromeda 1998), 
working quickly and delivering distinctive excessive touches due to his high 
speed adrenalin mode of direction. By 1999, Miike had gained international 
cult status with Audition and Dead or Alive (both 1999), whose western DVD dis- 


54 cineACTiON 


FACING PAGE Fudoh: The New Generation. 
A grim postmodernist world of post- 
capitalist social Darwinism. 


tribution owed much to screenings at international film fes- 
tivals, gaining him the notoriety of acclaim by "fan boy" 
audiences. However, despite the fact that he is regarded 
both at home and abroad as a director of "had taste" films 
far removed from the art cinema circuit of his more distin- 
guished predecessors such as Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and 
Ozu, there is much more to his films than the over-the-top 
qualities hailed by his "fan boy" following. • 

Takashi Miike's films contain excessive features of cine- 
matic outrage similar to those found in the work of his con- 
temporary Shinya rsukamoto which often offend Western 
sensibilities. Born in the same year (1960) in the Shihuya 
area of I'okyo, Tsukamoto's films such as Ailventnres of the 
Electric Rod Boy (1987), Tetsiut (1990), Tetsuo 2 (1991), and 
Tokyo Fist (1995) extend "body horror" features associated 
with the films of David Cronenberg to their most grotesque 
conclusions with lurid, cybernetic images of bodily tranfor- 
mations evoking contemporary I-astern images of the logi- 
cal consequences of Freud's worst nightmares. It appears 
more than coincidental that Miike has cast his contempo- 
rary in two of his own films, Demi or Alive 2 (2000) and Ichi 
the Killer (2001), playing magician Higashino in the first 
and the devious controller of the title character in the sec- 
ond. Like Miike, Tsukamoto's films have always focused on 
the family as his recent erotic excursion A Snuke hi June 
(2002) reveals. 2 Both directors belong to a popular realm of 
Japanese cinema using lurid styles and themes in an outra- 
geous manner. Yet, unlike the debased figure of Quentin 
Tarantino, these directors belong to a specific cultural con- 
text suggesting that their chosen style is much more serious 
than most audiences might believe. 

Although Miike's films may appear gratuitously violent 
and pornographic to most Western audiences, they repre- 
sent a particular cinema of outrage that symbolizes a rapid- 
ly changing world facing the Japanese population today in 
which the worst aspects of globalization and postmod- 
ernism have called former values into question. Rather than 
retreat into the values of past Japanese cinema, Miike's films 
confront the nihilistic aspects of cultural change by recog- 
nizing their dangerous implications. Although the director 
may appear to condone or enjoy the personal and social 
chaos he cinematically depicts, his goal involves making his 
audiences confront these aspects rather than retreat into 
now anachronistic realms of ideological denial. Miike's 
films, with certain exceptions, represent a cinema of excess 
and outrage. But they often contain more than meets the 
eye on a visceral level. 

Miike's films represent a changed world in wiiich the 
visual overtones of a different type of cinema have expand- 
ed and destroyed the former certainties of that once domi- 
nant classical Japanese canonical cinema. Although the 
director has attracted a cult following due to his deliberate 
employment of a cinema of outrage designed to offend civ- 


Takashi Miike: The director as mischievous prankster 
thinking of new ways to offend moral values and civ- 
ilized sensibilities. 


ilized sensibilities, it is important to view his work against a 
broader cultural and social context. 

After 1945, Japan changed rapidly with accelerated 
developments of cultural and industrial modernism. These 
changes eventually resulted in the manifestation of a par- 
ticular form of "crisis cinema" related to the breakdown of 
economic and traditional modes of behavior. Several direc- 
tors, such as Juzo Itami (19BB-1997) and Takeshi Kitano 
(1947 - ) have commented on this trend which may be seen 
at its most devastating in Kinji Fukasaku's critically misun- 
derstood Buttle Royule (2000). Itami has spoken of problems 
facing the parochial nature of a Japanese social structure 
which encloses itself in a very narrow circle avoiding every- 
thing outside it. 

You try to get along with others inside the circle and 
ignore those who are outside it. That's the Japanese 
way. It makes for a society that Is peaceful and orderly. 
If there are disputes, they can be resolved relatively eas- 
ily. The weakness of this society is that it has no real con- 
nection with the outside world. ^ 



cineACTiON 55 


Itami believed the solution involved breaking; the circle and 
looking to the world outside. However, the outside w'orld 
also involves an ideological arena influenced by post-war 
models of American culture and industrialism affected by 
negative as well as supposedly positive democratic ideas as 
Takeshi Kitano notes. Commenting on the end of a high- 
growth era following the post- 1945 period, Kitano recog- 
nizes that imitating the American model has resulted in 
reproducing its worst features. 

When we look at Japan today and wonder why we have 
ail these problems between parents and children, with 
drug use - well we just have to look at America and see 
what kind of country its become, where their form of 
democracy has taken them. Parents have become scared 
of their own kids. It used to be that adults would scold 
kids who were running around and making trouble on 
the train, but now no one does that. When I was a kid I 
used to get scolded by adults all the time but that does- 
n't happen anymore. 

We've lost the ability to distinguish between right 
and duties. Now the emphasis is totally on rights - no 
one talks about duties any more and we're going in a 
very strange direction as a result.^ 

Japanese-based American critic Mark Schilling has also 
noted changes in Japanese cinema and society during the 
1990s where younger directors "began taking an new inter- 
est in not only Asians, but all minority groups in Japanese 
society, including Okinawans, humkumm (outcasts), gays, 
and AIDS victims. I'lie obsession of a previous generation of 
filmmakers with the meaning of Japanese identity in the 
wake of postwar cultural upheaval and spiritual malaise was 
giving way to a new awareness of the diversity among 
Japan's ostensibly homogenous masses."'’ 

However, this recognition did not entirely disavow 
issues of social malaise as many of lakashi Miike's films 
reveal. In fact, due to the influence of American culture on 
postwar Japan, several of his films exhibit a globally influ- 
enced awareness of a postmodernist aura of nihilism and 
despair transcending national boundaries. 

According to Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard in A WorlJ in 
Cliiws: Sol ml Crisis unii the Rise of PosUuodcni Citicmn, the 
contemporary era has seen the rise of a particular form of 
postmodernist cinema characterized by a paranoid vision of 
a society "shaped by total surveillance and institutional 
controls obliterating the realm of privacy, free spaces, and 
social autonomy historically championed by American lib- 
eralism. Associated with a pessimistic turn in social and 
political life, this global postmodernist discourse offers no 
answer to the deepening crisis in post-capitalist society but 
instead displays images of Hobbesian disorder characterized 
by certain disturbing imagery. 

Trapped in the social immediacy of the present, images 
attached to media culture tend to eviscerate a collective 
sense of both past and future. A culture thriving on fab- 
ricated images and sounds detached from historical con- 
text and meaning. It subverts a deeper understanding of 


social patterns as they unfold over time. Whether the 
cinematic moment is Star Wars or The Truman Show or 
Titanic or Pearl Harbor, all attention is riveted on the 
momentary, fleeting, and spectacular even where possi- 
bly intended social content is somewhere assimilated 
into the whole. Personalities, melodramatic scenes, sur- 
face images, outlandish actions, and technical flourishes 
easily crowd out historical narrative, whatever the pur- 
ported ideological substance. The much celebrated 
information revolution ends up short-circuited by the 
colonizing power of all-consuming images intrinsic to 
contemporary media culture -and to much of what we 
refer to as postmodern cinema. ^ 

I bis description could also apply to the cinema of Takashi 
Miike should we focus exclusively on stylistic outrage and 
less on certain other features. In that case, his films would 
form exploitation companion pieces to postmodernist 
Hollywood counterparts such as the Do^, Bulworth, and 
Prinum’ C.olors (all 1998) wliich give us "a trenchant critique 
of a corrupt, decaying social order without any sense of pos- 
sible alternatives to it" as Boggs and Pollard comment.” 

Superficially, Miike's films appear firm candidates for 
inclusion within this category. But, at the same time, his 
cinema of outrage often focuses on the dark aspects of 
Japanese society now emerging after the economic and 
social collapse of the post-war boom, especially those deal- 
ing with the oppression of minority groups involving aber- 
rant forms of sexuality and violence used as vicious forms 
of social control. 

Miike's films often feature diverse nationalities "that the 
mainstream regarded as scum on the Japanese social pond 
but who were nonetheless more vital than the gray-suited 
masses who surrounded them. Among them w'ere young 
Asians who related to their Japanese counterparts on a basis 
of equality, including their acts of sex and violence."'^ 

lakashi Miike is one of those directors who has bene- 
fited from the development of OV Cinema, or direct-to- 
video cinema, resulting not only in a highly productive 
output to date but also a creative energy displaying excess 
and outrage. One could easily label him the "Ken Russell" 
of Japanese cinema were it not for his interrogation of the 
social world of his culture often having a serious perspec- 
tive as well as a mischievous desire to offend as many peo- 
ple as possible. Both Russell and Miike aim at extending 
the visual boundaries of their national cinemas by stylisti- 
cally excessive means. While Russell attempted to decon- 
struct the traditional biopic, Miike cinematically under- 
mines the genres and social taboos of his own national 
cinema visually and thematically by reworking them in 
challenging ways. His films and interviews reveal him as 
a cinematic prankster. He welcomes the prolific opportu- 
nities allowed him in film, television, and OV-cinema 
since 1991 to gain relevant experience by engaging in 
diverse forms of cinematic outrage which are not entirely 
iconoclastic. 

Significantly enough, his cinema of outrage operates on 
a similar level to the pessimism contained in the comedies 
of Juzo Itami who also engages in national provocation. 


56 cIneACTiON 


Japanese like getting what you call in English 'reinforce- 
ment/ They like to be told that Japanese are wonderful 
people and that things are just fine the way they are. 
Tm the opposite. I want to make movies that destroy 
existing values. My movies have a dose of poison in 
them - they say that Japanese are no good [laughs]. So 
I have to make them as comedies, or the dose of poison 
would be too strong. 

Characteristically, most of Miike's work contains vast doses 
of poison without the benefit of Mary Poppins's "spoonful 
of sugar" to make "the medicine go down in the most 
delightful way"! However, the poison may also contain 
alternative medicinal values suggesting in the minds of 
audiences different directions that his contemporary BUule 
Runner society could take. 

During several of his interviews contained on DVD 
issues of his work, Miike has spoken of the role of the fam- 
ily in his work in terms paralleling comments of fellow 
directors such as Itami and Kitano. Although a film such as 
Rainy (1998) follow^s the gangster film format of his first 
cinematic feature The Third Gangster while e.xtending the 
se.x and violence excesses of Shinjukii Triad Socieh' ( 199S), it 
also contains a serious undertow. Takashi sets his alienated 
Japanese hitman (played by generic regular and favorite 
actor Sho Aikawa) in Taiwan. One day, the loner finds him- 
self a reluctant parent when his ex-girlfriend leaves him 
with a little boy sbe claims is his son. Although initially 


treating him as a stray dog, he ends up by forming a family 
with the boy and a woman as he is hunted by a rival gang. 
Shot before Kitano's Kikujiro (1999), the theme exhibits a 
common cultural concern. Ironically, Miike's dark iconoclas- 
tic version of Pasolini's Theoreina , Visitor Q (2()()1), has the 
outsider reuniting a dysfunctional family rather than dispers- 
ing it. I his concept of attempting a return to former values 
also occurs in Takashi's second installment of the Dead or 
Alive trilogy. Dead or Alive 2: Hirds (2000), whose sub-title 
evokes his 1998 fantastic feature The Bird People in China. This 
film dealt with a Japanese salaryman and yakuza who discov- 
er a utopian society in southwestern China populated by a 
tribe whose children grow wings. As Schilling comments, it 
evokes themes contained in one of the earliest films dealing 
with outsiders in Japan - Nobuhiko Obayashi's Beijing 
Watermelon (Pekinteki Suika 1989), namely "that, in their pur- 
suit of prosperity, Japanese have somehow lost sight of the 
values that made them human, and that it is up to other 
poorer Asians, whose hearts are still unsullied by materialism, 
to remind them of what is important, lly the end both the 
salaryman and the yakuza have begun to spread their own 
wings. In the land where Japanese culture began, they have 
finally found their spiritual home."*' 

However, Miike's perspective is highly multifaceted. His 
one musical to date. The Happiness of the Katakuris (2(K)1), 
celebrates his own dark version of dysfunctional family 
values. But it reaches a transcendent musical utopian cli- 
max with the family outside society celebrating the natu- 


Sho Aikawa in Dead or Alive. 


Ichi the Killer: An apocalyptic world of 
postmodern violence. 


ral death of the grandfather. His well-known Dciul or Alive 
trilogy has its own specific perspectives. 

Featuring generic stalwarts Sho Aikawa and Riki 
Fakeuchi, Demi or Alive (1999) might appear to be another 
entry in Japanese cinema's prolific yokii/Aheisu gangster 
genre. But the opening sequence bombards viewers with an 
M FV visual cocktail suggesting that the film will be "some- 
thing completely different." After this beginning in the 
Kahukicho district of Tokyo (the Japanese equivalent to the 
Iriad- dominated territory of Tsimshatshui in Hong Kong 
cinema) mi.xing violence, se.xuality, and food to visually 
Rabelaisian excess, Miike then "appears" to offer his unsus- 
pecting viewer traditional generic fare. I he narrative decep- 
tively seems to employ the usual melodramatic forms 
employed by the gangster film interspersed with moments 
of mischievous excess. Deotl or Alive contrasts Aikawa's hon- 
est cop to Ryu'ichi/ Riki Takeuchi's gangster grandson of a 
Chinese "war orphan." But, like Lit}’ of Lost Souls (2()(K)) and 
his other films, Miike recognizes that changing times have 
affected the image Japan normally presents to the world. 
One of Miike's most outrageous scenes involves a gangster 
drowning a female in a tub filled with her own shit as a 
result of a deliberately engineered drug overdose. Although 
this appears offensive to the tastes of most audiences. 


Miike's ittoilus openunli in tliis example of his cinema of out- 
rage involves taking the yukuzu-eisu's traditional treatment 
of women to its logical conclusions and confronting liis 
audience with the dark implications of tliis theme. As 
Schilling comments, the Japanese gangster movie is gener- 
ally regarded as a "disreputable genre whose real-life mod- 
els are mainly thugs with retrograde ideas about women, 
minorities, the emperor, and nearly everything under the 
sun."‘“ This is one of several disturbing features in Takashi 
Miike's cinema of outrage making it much more than a 
postmodernist mindless celebration of excessive violence. 

Both of the protagonists in Deud or Alive care for family 
members but lose them in a world of arbitrary violence. 
Ryu'ichi greets his younger brother Toji/ Michisuke 
Kashiwaya who has returned from a college education in 
the USA which he has funded. On his return, Ryu'ichi takes 
Toji to his parents' graveyard located in a muddy industrial 
wasteland. However, Ryu'ichi sees the eventual contamina- 
tion of his brother by the yakuza way of life which eventu- 
ally leads to his death. Toji vainly attempts to break away 
from his brother's violent world. 

The films of Takashi Miike never operate on a didactic 
level. But, sometimes, significant sequences exist within his 
work suggesting different directions for characters trapped 


58 cineACTiON 




City of Lost Souls: The Multicultural 
Nightmare of Globalization. 


within an urban hell that not only makes them violent 
beings hut also destroys a younger generation who have no 
hope of breaking aw'ay.^^ Tojima, Dead or Alive's honest cop, 
struggles to raise 20 million yen to send his teenage daugh- 
ter for a heart transplant operation in the United States. He 
succumbs to temptation when he borrows the money from 
a local yakuza oyalmn before Kyu'ichi's revenge enables him 
to break free of his obligation. Before this happens, Toji's 
return to help his brother during this violent attack leads to 
his death. Similarly, Tojima becomes responsible for the 
death of his partner in the incident leading to the bereave- 
ment of the latter's wife and young son. Violence begets 
violence leading to the poignant destruction of the most 
vulnerable characters. Ibjima's hopes for the future are also 
destroyed when he sees his wife and daughter blown up by 
a car bomb planted by Ryu'ichi. 

I he final moments of the film initially suggest a formu- 
laic Dirty Harry combat between cop and villain. Yet Miike 
not only implodes the confrontation from within but 
e.xplodes his entire narrative moving from generic conven- 
tion to e.xcess until dark fantastic imagery finally overpow- 
ers the sequence. On one level, it appears like a retreat to 
inau^^a. But it is much more serious and better developed 
than Tarantino's gratuitous distracting excursion in Kill 


Hill'.Volunie One (2003). Ihe final movements never appear 
arbitrary. They form part of a changing generic dimension 
that can only end in Miike's own version of Jean-Luc 
Ciodard's "Fin du Cinema." The antagonists face each other 
in a scenario which moves continually from one apocalyp- 
tic level of violence to another until cosmic destruction rep- 
resents the only logical way in which this particular crisis 
cinema narrative can end. Dead or Alive's excessive elements 
of male violence have disastrous global consequences. 

Miike understood that he could not make an actual 
"sequel" to Dead or Alive. Instead, he pursued its implica- 
tions in other directions. Featuring his stars in different 
roles. Dead or .\ live 2: The Birds (2(){)()) represents the direc- 
tor's iconoclastic appropriation of a style resembling Latino 
"magical realism." This explains his deliberate departure 
from the excessive features of the earlier film. Miike's cine- 
ma of outrage occasionally appears in this film. But it 
becomes subordinated to a more muted narrative which 
might disappoint viewers expecting another excessive Dead 
or /Mive sequel repeating the apocalyptic elements con- 
tained in the original film's climax. Opening sequences 
show a young boy who mysteriously changes into hit man 
Mizuki/Sho Aikawa. But the o[)ening caption of the film, 
"Where are you?" is one of many graphic interrogative 


cineACTiON 59 



Blade Runner: An influential text for contemporary 
Japanese popular cinema. 


inserts. It questions Mizuki's adult involvement in his dead- 
ly profession after ju.xtaposing two images of his youthful 
self and a cosmic landscape showing the moon and the 
earth. Ciangster boss Higashino/ Shinya Tsukamoto signifi- 
cantly performs a magical routine involving two cigarette 
packs representing warring factions of yakuzas and Triads as 
he commissions Mizuki for an assassination. But his mis- 
sion becomes usurped by Shu/Riki Takeuchi. Pursued by 
both sides, Mizuki and Shu leave the urban landscape in 
fantastic imagery evoking the final scenes of Dciul or Alive 
until they meet each other on a ferry going to a rural south 
Japanese island. 

Dciul or Alive 2 not only evokes the brief idyllic world of 
lakeshi Kitano's Sonotine (1993), or "gangsters at the 
seashore" as it is popularly known, hut also an alternative 


world of magic having much to do with an past w^orld of 
non-violent childhood both major characters have left 
behind. As Higashino significantly comments, " Phe whole 
world loves magic, you know." Demi or Alive 2 provides a 
magical alternative to the e.xcessively violent world repre- 
sented by Miike's other films such as Fitiloh: The New 
Generation (199b), Fall Metal Yakiiza (1997), and Iclii the 
Killer (2001). As in Dead or Alive, both men are alter e^os. 
riiey also represent different historical incarnations of the 
yakuza gangster figure as well as being boyhood friends 
from the same rural island. Mizuki wears the anachronistic 
aloha shirt seen on gangsters in earlier yakuza films wiiile 
also incongruously having his hair dyed blonde in modern 
fashion.'-* In contrast to Shu's more adult modern attire, the 
shirt also represents the world of childhood Mizuki has 


60 cineACTiON 


supposedly left behind. As Higashino notes, "You're not a 
kid anymore, jerk." Both Mizuki and Shu are mistaken for 
the same person by the Japanese underworld in the open- 
ing ten minutes of the film evoking the blood brotherhood 
bonding begun in Demi or Alive which Demi or Alive: Fimtl 
(2002) will continue. 

I hc film intersperses flashbacks to the earlier life of the 
main characters who often transform back into their 
younger selves. They also sport angelic wings in one 
scene. Mizuki and Shu begin as isolated individuals who 
later recognize each other as former childhood friends. 
Both characters have been "branded to kill" by their adult 
professions and have no other destination e.xcept hell. 
They finally decide to use their skills to aid starving chil- 
dren throughout the world - a humanitarian gesture 
which may seem unusual in this director's cinema hut 
having a particular relevance here as documentary shots 
of starving African children reveal. 

Rather than again recreate his imaginative urban 
Kabukicho fantasy world, Miike uses beautiful location 
scenes of a rural southern Japanese island where the two 
characters grew up together in a Catholic orphanage before 
the young Mizuki mysteriously left for Osaka. It is an F.denic 
world they have lost after becoming adults in an urban jun- 
gle. They encounter a childhood friend (played by Kenichi 
Endo who portrayed the warped father in Visitor Q). Unlike 
his later urban counterpart, he is happy in his surroundings 
and is an expectant father. His role reinforces Miike's fre- 
quent comments about the important role of the family in 
his films. It certainly occupies a key position here. While 
Mizuki, Shu, and others perform a children's pantomime in 
their innocent rural world, Miike uses obvious Eisenstein- 
influenced montage cuts to reveal the bloody urban activi- 
ties of their counterparts. During the performance, Shu 
appears as a lion with Mizuki as a water imp - two figures 
from the gentle non-urban world of Japanese mythology. 
The contrast between different worlds is as deliberate as the 
October-Vike influence of the frequently interspersed graphic 
question, "Where are you going?" throughout the film. It 
last appears after the shot of a new baby boy who may soon 
grow up to be "branded to kill" like his deceased adult 
uncles. When Mizaki and Shu finally return to their idyllic 
island paradise to die, Miike again juxtaposes images of their 
past youthful and adult appearances before the final shots 
show their younger selves reunited again in a utopian non- 
urban community before dying. 

The final scene also complements those touching pro- 
gressive values contained in Miike's most positive and 
unusual work Tlw Bird People in Chino. Although the direc- 
tor may belong to the late baby boomer phase of post-war 
Japan who benefited from the economic miracle, his views 
concerning the changes capitalist values have made on his 
society are by no means celebratory. 

Dead or Alive: Final (2002) concludes the trilogy in its own 
distinctive way. Opening with sequences from old silent 
South East Asian fantasy and martial arts films. Dead or 
Alive: Final displays Yokohama's post-apocalyptic world of 
A.D. 2346 where nothing has really changed. Far from cel- 
ebrating the future as a utopian arena of globalization. 


Miike depicts it as a bleak environment where the same 
oppressive forces dominate the landscape as they do in his 
contemporary yakuza films. He contrasts the naive futuris- 
tic visions contained in the opening scenes with a grim real- 
ity calling into question utopian visions of a future in 
which things supposedly will get better. Miike presents his 
leading actors as opposing figures as in the first film. But, 
they are again complementary opposites. Riki Takeuchi's 
"Deckard" character Takeshi Honda now pursues Sho 
Aikawa's "Roy Batty" replicant surrogate Ryo in a world 
dominated by the 'Fyrell figure of corrupt Mayor 
Wu/Richard Chen.*** They exist in a world in which past 
and present co-exist in bleak postmodernist imagery. For 
example, Miike includes a bullet-trajectory homage to 
Ringo Lam's Fall Contact (1992) but allows Ryo to deflect 
the threat in a traditionally generic manner. When a bullet 
moves towards Honda, he deflects it with a wooden han- 
dled samurai sword similar to actions performed by actors 
Bunta Sagawara and Takakura Ken in classic yakuza movies 
of the 60s and 70s. 

Like Blade Runner and Heroic Trio 2: The Executioners 
(1993), the causes of the apocalypse remain mysterious 
until Wu informs Honda that overpopulation led to a w^ar 
which destroyed the environment. "We must not make the 
same mistake again." Wu manufactures a drug aimed at 
controlling the population. But his chosen subjects are 
Chinese rather than Japanese. Since Cantonese speaking 
characters such as gangleader Fong (played by Los Angeles- 
raised Amerasian actor Fercncc Yin, Miike's equivalent of 
Hong Kong cinema's Michael Fitzgerald Wong), who also 
speaks to Ryo in American-accented English, are outsiders 
in this society, the director suggests that the apocalyptic war 
may have echoed that earlier period of Japanese expansion 
into China. I his history is still a taboo topic in contempo- 
rary Japan. Such meanings appear possible in a director 
whose social insights often resemble those contained with- 
in Kinji Fukasaku's earlier generic and historical explo- 
rations in the Battles Without Honor and Hunianity’ series 
(1973-1974). Mayor Wu exerts his own form of population 
control upon the Chinese population of Yokohama who are 
not only treated as a despised underclass but also subjected 
to atrocities reminiscent of war crimes perpetuated during 
the infamous Rape of Nanking in 1937. Furthermore, 
although Miike's future world contains multi-cultural fea- 
tures as in Cit}‘ of Lost Souls (2()()0), his vision undermines 
one of the celebratory images of the postmodern condition. 
Cultural and linguistic mergers do not necessarily guarantee 
human freedom as violent apocalyptic imagery in (aty of 
Lost Souls and Dead or Alive B demonstrate. 

Miike's revelation concerning the "blood brother" iden- 
tities of his two leading stars makes explicit elements con- 
tained in the trilogy's earlier installments. Like their former 
counterparts, Ryo and Honda are father figures in several 
ways forming deep bonds with their adoptive and actual 
sons. Ryo understands that he belongs to an "old world" in 
which his opponents were both humans and replicants. 
But, like Roy Batty, he has human feelings. "Although I'm a 
robot, I still wish the battle would end and I could go 
home." While Honda finally discovers that his revered 


cineACTiON 61 


} 


family life is merely a programmed lie, Ryo eventually 
forms a touching nuclear family bonding with Fong's 
bereaved girlfriend Jim. But this cannot last. After repeat- 
ing a montage of scenes from the earlier films, both Ryo 
and Honda move towards that final confrontation towards 
which they have been programmed. Both finally return 
"home" when they ironically recognize that "destruction is 
our source of life." Fhey battle each other and become rein- 
carnated symbiotically. The final scenes reveal a deadly 
avenging robotic angel giving those hrietly-seen angelic 
figures in Dviui or Alive 2 a new twist as Miike concludes his 
trilogy' with his reunited heroes about to take revenge on 
Mayor Wu. 

Like the rest of Miike's films, the Dead or Alive trilogy 
can not he entirely defined as either self-indulgent or a 
nihilistic postmodernist celebration of cinematic e.xcess. 
Global blurring of boundaries never involves positive 
utopias. Yet the future direction of Miike's work remains 
ambiguous. It may suffer recuperation by nihilistic post- 
modernist discourses if style, rather than substance, takes 
center stage. As Art Black comments, critics generally tend 
to concentrate on "Miike's bravura sequences, his stark sur- 
reality and apocalyptic vision, his tour-de-force rapidfire 
editing that makes the opening of the film look like an 
amphetaminized trailer for itself, and the bold, imaginative 
violence that has become Miike's trademark. I he surface, 
the gloss, the astonishingly graphic showmanship was so 
striking - and still is - that it tends to mask Miike's subtexts 
and abiding personal concerns." 

I hese concerns certainly exist as Miike's recent outrage 
Ctozu: /\ Vitku/Ai Horror Storys (2003) reveals. While fastidi- 
ous viewers might react in a manner recalling earlier 
reviews of Lobe Hooper's The Textis Clniinsow Massocre 
(1974), this would lose sight of important connections 
between style and substance. Miike has displayed an icon- 
oclastic version of closet homosocial elements common 
to classical Hollywood gangster films such as Little iAiesar 
(1931) and later examples such as The Ttiwnhroker (1965) 
as well as the traditional yakuza movie. In many ways, it 
is a dark cinematic version of elements contained in Eve 
Kosofsky Sedgewick's 198()s study of homosexual ele- 
ments in classic literary texts appropriately titled Between 
Men. Like the rest of Miike's work, Go/.ii reveals new direc- 
tions. If he can develop the stylistic forms of his cinema 
of outrage into the type of social critique represented by 
ITikasaku's Buttles Without Honor and Hnniunit}' and Buttle 
Royule, some significant achievements may result. His 
recent films suggest some promise. During 2002, Miike 
remade Fukasaku's bleak classic 1975 gangster film 
(Iruveyurd of Honor, updating it from the original war and 
postwar era to reflect the equally dehumanized and vio- 
lent era of the Japanese economic miracle and the unex- 
pected recession of the 199()s. Miike also shot a humanis- 
tic comedy, Shuns^ri-Lu in the same year, about the resi- 
dents of a homeless camp who help an unemployed print- 
er return to his business and former life. I he title of this 
film also echoes themes within The Bird People of Chinn, as 
well as Miike's stated concerns of the necessity of return- 
ing to a more humane form of society while at the same 


time expressing a deep awareness of how problematic this 
goal actually is. >7 

Dedicated to Oyabun Weisser of Florida and Kobun Lewis of 
Illinois. 

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the 
Deportment of English at Southern Illinois University. He has 
recently written The Cinema of George Romero (Wallflower 
Press, 2003) and Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert 
Aldrich (forthcoming). 

NOTES 

1 For a good introduction to Miike's work see Tom Mes, Agitator: The 
Cinema of Takashi Miike. London: FAB Press, 2004. I express thanks to 
Ms. Gabrielle Kang for loaning me her copy. 

2 See Tom Mes, "Shinya Tsukamoto Interview," 
http:www.MidnightEye.com. 10.23.2002; Mes, "A Snake in June," op.cit. 

3 "juzo Kami," Mark Schilling, Contemporary Japanese Film. New York: 
Wealherill, 1999, 76. Significant comparisons may be made with cer- 
tain Western forms of "crisis cinema." See here Crisis Cinema: The 
Apocalyptic Idea in Postmodern Narrative Film. Ed. Christopher Sharrett. 
Washington, D.C.: Maissoneuve Press, 1993. 

4 Schilling, p. 100. Kitano's comments equally apply to Nikkatsu Studio's 
Subway Serial Rape series (1985-1988) which often contrast graphic 
assault on females with passengers who passively sit and watch the 
proceedings. Despite the unwholesome nature of these scenes director 
Suji Kataoka clearly condemns the passengers who never intervene to 
help the women. See Thomas Weisser and Yuko Mihara Weisser. The 
Sex Films: Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia. Miami, Florida: Vital Books, 
Inc. 1998, pp. 421-422. 

5 Schilling, p. 45. 

6 Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard, A World in Chaos: Social Crisis and the Rise 
of Postmodern Cinema. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 
2003, p. 1 3) 

7 Boggs and Pollard, 29. However, for an excellent critique of the nihilis- 
tic dimensions of postmodernism see In Defense of History: Marxism and 
the Postmodern Agenda. Eds. Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy 
Foster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997. 

8 Boggs and Pollard, p. 129. 

9 Schilling, p. 50. 

10 Schilling, pp. 81-82. 

1 1 Schilling, p. 50. 

1 2 Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films. 
Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2003, p. 1 1 . 

13 Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) is another grim example of this 
theme which drastically destroys the traditional myths of family loyal- 
ty to exhibit instead a grim social Darwinist world which violently con- 
sumes the younger generation. 

1 4 Such merging of traditional and contemporary styles is obviously delib- 
erate. As Schilling comments, the dyed blonde hair represents the 
mark of defiance on the part of a Japanese Generation X figure "whose 
interests were often intensely, even bizarrely, personal, rather than 
being group-orientated and socially sanctioned. Their resistance to the 
conforming pressures of Japanese society manifested itself more in 
small individual gestures of defiance— dying one's hair blonde or eat- 
ing fast food on commuter trains— than in organized acts of protest." 
See Contemporary Japanese Film, p. 37. 

1 5 For the influence of Blade Runner on contemporary Japanese cinema 
see Schilling, 36, pp. 47-48). For its role as a cultural symbol of con- 
temporary American postmodernist malaise see Mike Davis, Ecology of 
Fear. New York: Henry Holt, chapter 7; p. 363, Boggs and Pollard, p. 
247. In their review of Blade Runner, the authors note a key feature that 
will have later relevance both to contemporary Japanese cinema and 
Dead or Alive 3. "Deckard is cold and detached by nature, having 
inspired the name "sushi" given to him by his ex-wife." (p. 254) Mayor 
Wu and the new female recruit in Honda's team later criticize him for 
his workaholic tendencies which distance him from an appropriate lov- 
ing relationship with his actual family. 

16 Art Black, "The Films of Takashi Miike." Japanese Cinema Essential 
Handbook. 5th edition. Eds. Thomas Weisser and Yuko Mihara Weisser. 
Miami, Florida: Vital Books, 2003, p.416. 

1 7 See "Takashi Miike Interview (August 2000)," Mark Schilling, The 
Yakuza Movie Book, p.81 . 


62 cineACTiON 



Indigenous Feature Films 

A NEW HOPE FOR NATIONAL CINEMAS? 


I 


I 

I 


! 

I 



As an observer of the cinemas of C'anada, Australia and New 
Zealand, I have recently been struck by the unprecedented success 
of indigenous feature films from these three nations. 
AtiumrjiuU'.TIw Fust Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2002), Ruhhit- 
Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002), and Whole Rider (Niki Caro, 

200.^) are the first indigenous feature films from these nations 
to reach mass audiences. Fhey are perhaps the most success- 
ful indigenous features from any nation around the globe. IXi 
these successes suggest a new direction for national cinemas? It 
seems possible that indigenous cinema might help to re-imagine 
national cinema in the new millennium and in the process contribute 
to new understandings of the distinct culture and charac- 
ter of various English-speaking cinemas, wiiich fight 
Hollywood for attention and audiences. 

Some critics have suggested that these three films 
shamelessly cater to Western audiences who want to 
congratulate themselves on their enlightenment 
and concern for "disappearing cultures." 1 don't 
agree that this is what the films suggest - their 
very point is that these cultures have not disap- 
peared. Marshaling their stylistic and thematic 
guns, they force the audience's attention to this 
fact, startling viewers who believe that indige- 
nous peoples have been largely wiped out or 
that they have no recognizable role to play in 
modern society. Atonarjuot, Rabbit-Proof Fence 
and Whale Ruler launch a project of remem- 
bering; un-covering aspects of the colonial 
past with their close attention to indigenous 
culture. In doing so, they open up national 
cinema to voices that have long been silent 
(silenced), specifically aboriginal voices. The 
power of voice is enacted in varying w^ays in 
these three films; in tw'o, indigenous people 
speak directly to the audience in voiceover 
narration or in documentary footage, while 
in the third, an indigenous filmmaker and 


RIGHT: Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) contemplates 
her destiny in Whale Rider. 


BY jENNlFER L. GAUTHIER 





Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) is Pai's 
champion throughout Whale Rider. Here 
she consoles her granddaughter after one 
of Koro's outbursts. 


his team of indigenous actors and crew re-create a forgotten 
culture for the viewer. Rabbit-Proof Fence, Atanarjuat, and 
Whale Killer provide a re-vitalized vision for national cinema 
by embracing previously denied cultural roots and high- 
lighting the multiplicities within the nation. I he films urge 
not only a re-imagining of national cinema, but also a re- 
imagining of their respective nations as a whole, begging the 
question of how far they have come as postcolonial cultures. 

Noyce, an Australian director who has worked in 
Hollywood for twelve years {Patriot Chnnes |1992|, Clear anil 
Present Danger 1 1994), and The Quiet American |2()()2|, among 
others), returned to his native land to make Rabbit-Proof 
Fence. I he film is based on a book. Follow the Rabbit-Proof 
Fence, written in 1996 by Doris Pilkington Garimara. 
Garimara's tc.xt relates the story of how her mother survived 
Australia's aboriginal relocation program in the 193()s. 
Along with her sister Daisy and her cousin Gracic, Doris's 
mother, Molly walked over 1500 miles across the nation 
from an Aboriginal work camp to her home in the bush, fol- 
lowing the fence that protects Australia's farmland from rab- 
bits. Rabbit-Proof Fence has received acclaim both inside 
Australia and beyond. It garnered three Australian Film 
Institute awards, including Best Film, and Noyce was named 
Director of the Year by the National Board of Review\ 

Canada's Atanarjuat, or The Fast Runner is the first fea- 
ture film made in Inuktitut, an Inuit language. Produced 
by Igloolik Isuma Productions, the first hunt production 
company, the film features an all-lnuit cast and a pre- 
dominantly Inuit crew\ Director Zacharias Kunuk and his 
team (Paul Apak Angilirq, Paul Quiitalik, and cameraman 
Norman Cohn) have produced a number of films for the 
Inuit Broadcasting Corporation that document aspects of 
Inuit culture, including Qa\ixii] (Catherins^ Place, 1990) and 
Saputi {Fish Traps, 1993). Atanarjuat re-creates a tradition- 
al Inuit fable addressing community tics, religion and 
individual responsibility. Since its premiere it has won 
numerous national and international awards including 
six Genie Awards in Canada, Best Canadian Film at the 
Foronto International Film Festival, and the Camera d'Or 


at C:annes for Best First Feature Film. 

Like Rabbit-Proof Fence, Whale Rider is based on a book by 
an indigenous author, Maori writer, VViti Ihimaera. It tells 
the story of a young Maori girl, Pai/Kcisha Castle-Hughes, 
as she struggles to gain the respect of her grandfather, who 
is searching for a leader to guide the tribe and preserve 
Maori values in the modern w^orld. I he film w\is directed by 
Pakeha (White Furopcan) New' Zealander, Niki Caro; it is 
her second feature film and it has garnered attention and 
aw'ards all over the w'orld, including the People's Choice 
Aw'ard at the Toronto International Film Festival, the 
Audience Award for World Cinema at Sundance and the 
Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. Perhaps 
most notable to Western audiences was its Academy Aw'ard 
Nomination for Best Supporting Actor for C'astle-Hughes. 

Australia, Canada and New' Zealand share an abiding 
interest in maintaining a distinct national cinema tradition 
in the face of American cinematic hegemony. They also face 
similar [)roblems in gaining access to audiences as a result 
of Hollyw'ood's monopoly on distribution and exhibition. 
In all three nations, the state has tried a variety of strategies 
to encourage and support feature filmmaking w'ithin the 
nation. Australian national cinema was officially launched 
in 1969 with the Australian Film Development 
Corporation, followed in subsequent years by the 
Australian Film Commission (AFC) and the Film Finance 
Corporation (FFC). While C^anada's national cinema was 
born in 1939 with the National Film Board of Canada 
(NI B), it wasn't until the 197()s that nationally-funded fea- 
ture films were produced. I he Canadian Film Development 
Corporation, now known as Telefilm Canada, spearheads 
the feature film industry in Canada. The New Zealand Film 
Commission w'as founded much later, in 1978, and has not 
had as wide-ranging an approach to film production as 
have Australia and Canada. More recently all three nations 
have renewed their commitment to feature filmmaking 
with various increases in funding and new' regulations con- 
cerning appropriation of funds. 

Despite these historical initiatives, indigenous filmmak- 


64 cineACTiON 



Whale Rider: Pai and her grandfather 
(Rawiri Paratene) in a happy moment. 


ins meager support from all three national cine- 

mas. Indigenous filmmakers in Canada and Australia have 
historically had better success working in the documentary 
and experimental modes. Alanis Ohomsawin is C^anada's 
best-known First Nations filmmaker. She has made several 
feature-length documentaries chronicling the Canadian 
government's mistreatment of various First Nations tribes, 
including Kunchsutiikc: 270 Years of Resistance (1993). Fhe 
national cinema renaissance in Australia in the 197()s fea- 
tured several notable features made by White directors that 
dealt with Aboriginal issues including Peter Weir's The Last 
Wave (1977), Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jinunie Rlacksinith 
(1978) and Nicholas Koeg's Walkabout {]97]).^ Until recent- 
ly, Fracey Moffatt was the only Aboriginal Australian film- 
maker to have gained critical attention. Fler films, Nice 
Coloured Cirls (1987), Ni^ht Oies - A Rural Tragedy (1989), 
and bedevil (1993) draw upon the avant-garde tradition to 
explore issues of postcolonialism and aboriginal identity 
development. In the past few years, other aboriginal film- 
makers have garnered national (and international) acclaim 
for their work: Ivan Sen for Heneath Clouds (2002) and Rachel 
Perkins for Radiance (1998) and One Niyht the Moon (2001 ). 

A number of films made by Maori have come out of New 
Zealand, despite its small size. Barry Barclay pioneered 
Maori filmmaking in the contemporary context with his 
films, Ns^ati (1986), Te Rua (1991) and the made-for-FV 
docudrama. The Feathers of Peace (2000). Merata Mita has 
made both features and documentaries, including Patu! 
( 1981 ), which chronicled the outbreaks of violence that met 
the South African rugby team, the Springboks, as they 
toured New Zealand. Once Were Warriors (1994), directed by 
Lee Famahori was until recently the most successful film at 
the New Zealand box office ever.“ Less widely known is the 
The Maori Merchant of Venice (2002), directed by Maori 
Shakespearean actor, Don Selwyn. The film is based on an 
adaptation of the play translated into the Maori language 
by a Maori scholar in 1945, and it has won awards in both 
New Zealand and at the Hawaii International Film Festival. 
Although the film has had problems gaining wide release, a 


multi-language DVD is apparently in production. 

Considering the historical record for indigenous feature 
films in these three nations, the recent success of 
Atanarjuat, Rahhit-Proof Pence und Whale Rider \s i\\\ the more 
exciting. Fhe films have more than pure entertainment 
value; they share an intense focus on the clash of cultures 
that characterizes postcolonial societies. Their narratives 
work to recover aspects of indigenous culture that have 
been lost or forgotten in contemporary society and this 
effort suggests a renewed project for national cinema. 
Atanarjuat and Rahhit-Proof Fence highlight historical 
instances of the mistreatment of indigenous peoples, call- 
ing attention to portions of the nation's history that have 
been elided. Whale Rider locates its action in the contem- 
porary moment, chronicling the impact of years of Pakeha 
influence on Maori culture. The films share not only an 
overarching project, hut also thematic concerns such as 
land, family and tradition, implicating these as specific sites 
of culture clash. 

Rahhit-Proof Pence explicitly addresses the clash of cul- 
tures in its colonization narrative. Basing the film on 
Ciarimara's memoir, Noyce uses one woman's personal his- 
tory to unearth the colonial history of the nation. Follow the 
Rahhit-Proof Fence reveals the experiences of a group of 
Aboriginals now known as " Fhe Stolen Generation."^ Since 
the Furopean settlement of Australia, it was common prac- 
tice to remove Aboriginal children from their families. In 
1905 Western Australia passed an Aborigines Act, which 
entrusted a Chief Protector with the legal guardianship of 
all Aborigitial and part-Aboriginal people in that territory. 
Children were placed in work camps with the stated goal of 
improving their self-respect and making them useful to 
society. Fhe policy was clearly aimed at breeding out 
Aboriginal blood and culture. 

This goal is vividly demonstrated by a scene in Rahhit- 
Proof Fence featuring Chief Protector A.O. Neville/Kenneth 
Branagh, presenting a slide show to a group of w'ell-mean- 
ing, upper class, white women. Neville is colonialism 
embodied; during the presentation, he suggests that he 


cineACTiON 65 



wants to give Aboriginal children "the benefit of everything 
our culture has to offer." Describing an "unwanted third 
race," the half-caste children, Neville declares that as their 
"Protector" it is his job to see that that they are "advanced" 
and "absorbed into the white population." He demonstrates 
his project with a slide showing three generations of 
Aborigines, each face lighter and more turopean in its fea- 
tures. Revealing his master plan, to effect the transition 
from one-half, to one-quarter, to octoroon, he states simply, 
"after three generation there is no trace of the native ori- 
gin." riie black is, as he says, "stamped out," or "bred out." 
Fhe practice of taking Aboriginal children from their fami- 
lies continued through the mid-197()s and was only fully 
acknowledged in a 1997 government report entitled, 
"Bringing Ihem Home."^ 

Noyce's opening scenes powerfully suggest the conflicts 
that characterize Aboriginal life and serve to establish the 
ongoing tension in the film between Aboriginal culture and 
Australian law. The film's overall structure is defined by a 
hack and forth movement between shots of Aboriginal peo- 
ple in their natural surroundings and scenes of Neville in 
his government office. This struggle between local culture 
and government policy is established at the outset of the 
film. In contrast to the idyllic images of family life is the 
family's reliance on the supplies provided by the state 
through the police depot. When a hell is rung, Molly's 
mother, Maude/Ningali Lawford, goes to collect her blan- 
kets and food staples from the guard. I he depot, symbol of 
the Aboriginals' lost self-sufficiency, later becomes the site 
of the abduction of the three girls. During this scene the 
soundtrack emphasizes Maude's disempowerment. Her 
screams mingle with the screams of camels, while the con- 
stable repeats, "It's the law Maude, you've got no say," and 
waves a piece of paper hearing an official-looking stamp in 
her face. Loud drum music emphasizes the e.xtreme emo- 
tion of the situation as the girls are literally torn out of their 
mother's arms and ripped from their homeland. 

Aboriginal Australians' connection to the land is made 
e.xplicit throughout Riihhit-Proof Fciue. With his opening 
shots, Noyce portrays Molly's/Lverlyn Sampi family as close 
to nature; in their brown clothing they almost disappear 
into the land's exposed soil. We see Molly catch a goanna 
for the family's meal - she is good at it, quick, fearless, and 
strong. These scenes underscore the necessity of having a 
close relationship to the land; it is ultimately through her 
familiarity with the geography of her homeland that Molly 
is able to find her way home across 15()() miles of outback. 
She successfully evades an Aboriginal tracker using several 
methods, including planning her escape to coincide with a 
rainstorm, walking through a river, and dragging a branch 
across her tracks. 

I he opening scenes of Rabbit-Proof Feme also establish 
the closeness of the family, and the necessity of familial 
bonds to Aboriginal survival. Molly takes charge of her sis- 
ter and cousin, leading their escape from the Moore River 
settlement and caring for them on the journey. At one 
point, Daisy/'lianna Sanshury decides to go her own way, 
and although Molly follows her, she is too late to prevent 
Daisy's capture by White authorities. Molly and 


Gracie/Laura Monaghan continue home across the desert; 
meanwhile, Molly's mother and grandmother have gath- 
ered at the rabbit-proof fence to guide the girls with songs 
and chanting. The bonds of family arc not broken by phys- 
ical separation, hut endure and pull Molly and Grade back 
home. When Molly arrives, the first thing she says is, "1 lost 
one." Her regret at not having kept the family together tem- 
pers her joy. 

While Rabbit-Proof Fence locates its story in the clash 
between White and Aboriginal societies, Atanarjnat and 
Whale Rider focus exclusively on indigenous communities; 
no white characters appear in either film (save for a minor 
character who appears late in Whale Rider). I hrough this 
absence the films evoke the contemporary tensions that 
exist between the indigenous and white populations in 
both nations. While Atanarjnat re-imagines the time before 
colonization of the Arctic by white explorers, it also sug- 
gests the impact of White settlers on limit culture, by vivid- 
ly presenting just what has been lost. In the 1940s and 50s, 
the federal government began to herd the nomadic limit 
into permanent settlements, primarily by taking children 
from their families and putting them into residential 
schools; families were forced to move into the settlements 
or remain separated from their children. 'Hiis process insti- 
tutionalized the de-culturation that had been taking place 
since Christian missionaries had come to the Arctic in the 
mid-nineteenth century. Scholars describe this process as 
"welfare colonialism;" the limits' nomadic life was disrupt- 
ed, their traditional hunting skills became obsolete, and 
their language and culture were suppressed.*' The mistreat- 
ment of the limit echoes that of Aboriginals in Australia, 
and like Rabbit-Proof Fence, Atanarjnat has forced people to 
confront these shameful aspects of national history that 
have been forgotten (or ignored) for many years. 

Kunuk, like Noyce favors large landscape shots that 
dwarf his characters, vividly portraying the struggle for sur- 
vival that the Inuit endure in the upper regions of Canada. 
Cohn's camera work captures the frigid quality of the Arctic 
with blinding shots of white snow and vast frames filled 
with nothing hut frozen tundra. Like the Aboriginals' lives 
in Australia, the lives of the limit are marked by a partner- 
ship with the natural environment. Throughout the film we 
see shots of the family members carving out sustenance 
from what seems like a desolate landscape. As Atanarjuat's 
wife, Atuat/Sylvia Ivalu searches for food in a seemingly 
barren field, we see her discover small purple flowers and 
nibble on a few as she collects them for a meal. As the film 
demonstrates, it is a constant struggle to find sustenance 
and to survive in the cold. Their intimate knowledge of the 
land and its offerings ensure their survival, as they do 
Molly's in Rabbit-Proof Fence. 

Perhaps the most evident connection between the limit 
and the land is demonstrated in Atanajurat's famous run- 
ning sequence, which gives the film its title. When his rival, 
Oki/ Peter-llenry Arnatsiaq comes to kill him, Atanarjaut 
escapes and takes off running (naked) across the ice. He sur- 
vives, and is cared for by a family, who helps him to recov- 
er. His miraculous feat suggests the delicate balance that 
characterizes the relationship between his tribe and the nat- 


66 cineACTiON 



Rabbit-Proof Fence: Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna 
Sansbury), and Grade (Laura Monaghan) making their 
way back home through the Australian outback. 


Rabbit- Proof Fence: Chief Protector, A.O. Neville (Kenneth 
Branagh) visits the Moore River Settlement to check up 
on "his" girls. 



ural world in which they live. Moreover, this e.xperience in 
nature marks him in a powerful way and when he returns 
to the tribe he instigates a reconciliation with his enemies, 
calling for an end to the killing. 

The film dramatizes an important Inuit fable, which 
begins with a visit from a shaman who lets loose an evil 
spirit into a tight family grouping resulting in the humilia- 
tion and ostracizing of one of the men. Through the telling 
of this fable, the film highlights the shared values that 
structure Inuit culture, specifically the sense of respect for 
the larger good of the community. Kinship is perhaps the 
most important aspect of hunt culture, particularly in a 
place where daily life is very difficult and cooperation is 
essential for survival. I'he fable highlights not only the role 
of family, but also the role of religion, which was altered 
through colonization. When the Christian missionaries 
gathered the Inuit to "civilize" them, shamanism was 
denounced as a pagan activity. As Kunuk describes, "When 
Christianity came, they didn't allow us to do drum dancing 
or storytelling. [They told us| ' I'hese acts are the work of the 
devil' and it sort of died."<^ By uncovering this aspect of 
colonialism in discussions surrounding the film, Kunuk 
suggests a new goal for national cinema — one that encour- 
ages people to re-examine their national history and cul- 
ture, just as Riihhit-Proof Fence does for Australians. 

WIntle Ruhr does not explicitly address issues of colo- 
nization, but the powerful influence of the Pakeha world is 
ever present despite the absence of White characters. I he 
culture clash is perhaps most clearly embodied in the char- 
acter Porourangi/Cliff Curtis, Pai's father, who left the 
Maori community after the death of his wife and son, who 
was Pai's twin. Rather than stay and be a leader to his tribe, 
he lives in Germany and pursues his career as an artist 
working within the Western tradition of formalism. He and 
his father, Koro/Rawiri Paratene are at odds whenever he 
visits; his father's disappointment with his choice to live in 
the Pakeha world is oppressive. Ihe film's narrative fore- 
grounds the important role of family in Maori culture and 


the generational clash highlights the negative impact of a 
Westernized society that does not place as much value on 
familial ties. 

I he urgency of Koro's quest to find a new' leader for his 
people speaks to the ongoing erosion of Maori traditions 
through its contact with Pakeha culture. Throughout the 
film the viewer is provided with evidence that Pai is des- 
tined to be the new' leader, but Koro cannot abide a female 
partaking of the male traditions of taiaha (spear fighting) 
and haka (a w'ar dance). Pai represents the culture clash 
defined not only as Maori vs. Pakeha, but also as man vs. 
w'omen, or more generally tradition vs. inodernity. Only by 
embracing a female leader for his people can Koro save their 
heritage and culture from complete assimilation. 

The film's title comes from an ancient Maori legend, 
w'hich tells of their ancestor, Paikea w'ho rode on the back 
of a whale across the ocean to found the first Maori settle- 
ment in New' Zealand. Pai's leadership potential (she is 
named after the ancestor) is made evident not only by her 
skill at traditional Maori activities, but also in her spiritual 
connection to the great ancestor. I he film opens with shots 
of whales swimming under w'ater as Pai's voiceover explains 
her birth, immediately linking her to the w'hales and the 
sea. rhroughout the film, we see numerous shots of her 
looking out at the ocean, communicating silently with the 
whales. When her father tries to take her back to Europe 
with him she makes him turn the car around; she is bound 
to the land/sea and cannot leave it. 

I he presence of indigenous protagonists in these three 
films (and entire casts in two of them) evidences a new' 
interest in the non-White citizen of the nation and bodes 
well for a revitalization of national cinema. I'hese fihns 
allow' the viewer to identify w'ith the indigenous other 
through varying aesthetic techniques, including point of 
view camera w'ork and the use of voice. In Rnhhit-Proof 
Fence, Noyce films events and people from Molly's point of 
view to help us understand her feelings. Most pow'erful are 
the shots of the Aboriginal tracker (played by veteran 


cineACTiON 67 



TOP: Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and his brother, Amaqjuaq 
(Pakak Innuksuk) share a rare peaceful moment. 

ABOVE: Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) holds Kumaglak (Apayata Kotierk), 
the son who will carry on Atanarjuat's family name. 


68 cineACTiON 


Abori>»inal actor, David Giilpilil, who first gained global 
attention in Witlkuhout) seen from Molly's vantage point — 
his face is distorted and he looms over the camera and the 
viewer. In addition, a voice-over spoken by the real Molly 
hookends the film. At the film's opening, Molly pulls us 
into her world by telling us the story of the spirit bird that 
her mother told her before she was taken from her home. 
After the diegetic story is completed, Molly's voice accom- 
panies documentary footage of her and Daisy at Jigalong, as 
women of ages 84 and 78 respectively. Hearing Molly's 
voice testify to her experience emphasizes its reality for the 
viewer and strengthens our identification with her. 
Moreover, this aesthetic choice helps contemporary viewers 
become intimately connected to the events of the past, and 
evidences aboriginals' continued existence and vital pres- 
ence in Australia. 

In addition to familiar suturing techniques, Noyce bor- 
rows stylistic conventions from European art cinema, echo- 
ing the roots of Australian national cinema. The prevalence of 
silence on the sound track and the lack of insistence on dra- 
matic activity set Rabbit-Proof Fence apart from Hollywood 
genre films. Long periods of silence give the film and the 
journey it chronicles a weighty quality, and highlight the 
drudgery of the KSOO-mile trek. The film's short bursts of 
drama are encased in long scenes featuring nothing but walk- 
ing. Noyce's spare editing underscores the length and diffi- 
culty of the girls' journey. It also pays homage to a more 
indigenous aesthetic style, as characterized by scholars of 
Aboriginal media, Michael Meadows and Helen Molnar. This 
style is identified with a preponderance of "long takes and 
natural sound," specifically, "long, uninterrupted shots of the 
landscape"^ used in Aboriginal productions to highlight sig- 
nificant landmarks for the Aboriginal population.^ 

Noyce's comfort with inaction and slow pacing as well as 
the focus on landscape in Rabbit-Proof Fence evidence his 
unique blend of European and indigenous aesthetics. The 
film's imagery calls to mind the Australian-inflected 
European art cinema tradition, initiated with Peter Weir's 
Picnic at Hankins Rock (1975). Weir's film has been credited 
with the 1970s renaissance of Australian national cinema. 
Noyce echoes Weir's oscillation between static and moving 
camera in Picnic to underscore the tension in Rabbit-Proof 
Fence between the girls' sense of entrapment within and 
steady movement through the Australian outback. Ihe 
overwhelming presence of nature is a theme common to 
both films, and to many other classics of Australian cinema. 
Rabbit-Proof Fence is rooted in Australia's national cinema 
tradition, but it explodes that tradition's white European 
hegemony by exposing the nation's history of Aboriginal 
mistreatment. 

Atanarjuat too blends Western and indigenous cinemat- 
ic traditions to create a specific aesthetic style designed to 
bridge the gap between the audience and the characters on 
the screen. Kunuk's intention is to counteract not only the 
distancing tendency of the documentary form, but to speak 
back to the stereotyping of native peoples in feature film. As 
in Rabbit-Proof Fence, viewers are encouraged to identify 
with the indigenous characters rather than regard them 
with contempt. Although the camera rarely places us in 


Atanarjuat's specific subject position, Cohn's camera work 
situates the viewer in Atanarjuat's family grouping. He shot 
the film on widescreen (16:9) digital Betacam and his cam- 
erawork is highly mobile. As the production notes suggest, 
"The film's visual strategy was designed to heighten the 
audience's sense of being there, despite the exotic locale . . 
. Ehe goal of Atanarjuat is to make the viewer feel insiite the 
action looking out rather than outside looking in. This lets 
people forget how^ far away they really are, and identify 
with the story and characters as it they were just like us."^^ 
Cohn places the viewer right in the middle of the action, 
whether riding on a speeding dogsled, participating in a 
group discussion or eating a communal meal. \o create the 
feeling of intimacy throughout the film, cameramen actu- 
ally rode on the sleds, ran alongside Atanarjuat, and used 
shoulder-mounted cameras. In one of the most vivid exam- 
ples of Cohn's style, we are trapped in the confined space of 
an igloo as Atanarjuat exacts his revenge on Oki. He has 
slicked the base of the igloo and buried a pair of ice skates 
and a club in the snow^ outside. When Oki and his friends 
enter to share in a meal of fresh meat, we enter w^ith them 
and enjoy Atanarjuat's hospitality, until suddenly he attacks 
them with his weapon. 'Ehe camera swings in tight circles to 
follow the struggle and wq are made dizzy with the sense of 
chaos and imminent danger. When Atanarjuat stops the 
fight and calls for an end to the violence, we are reeling 
with surprise and relief, as are Oki and his gang. Cohn's 
intimate and active camera positioning inserts us into this 
climactic moment in the film's narrative. 

Generally, the pace of the film is slow and methodical, 
much like that of Rabbit-Proof Fence and long takes docu- 
ment mundane activities in daily Inuit life, such as the 
tending of seal oil lamps and the preparation of raw' meat. 

I hese .scenes are lengthy and undramatic. The film's delib- 
erate and spare editing also impacts its pace. Rather than 
directing the audience's attention with quick cutting, 
Kunuk lets the spectator experience the film as a whole, not 
as a succession of dramatic moments. Describing a video he 
made of a seal hunt, Kunuk explains his style: 

An Inuk is standing over a hole in the ice. His arm is 
upraised, he is holding a spear. The shot is taken from 
some distance away, so that the figure is very small. The 
figure continues to stand, the camera does not move. 
The intensity of the moment is not produced by close 
ups jump cuts, acting or editing. We are in 'real time.' 
The intensity leaves us, we are bored. But we still wait. 
Occasionally it returns, we anticipate the seal, the sud- 
den strike, the action. But it does not take place. How 
long have we waited, have we watched this hunter - five 
minutes? ten? - before we realize we are waiting for him 
to strike and he is waiting for the seal, and so we too are 
in a way waiting for the seal and perhaps our waiting 
and his are the same. As we continue to watch we begin 
to understand that hunting a seal is not about the strike, 
the sudden moment of action, but rather the anticipa- 
tion, the boredom, the intensity, the exhaustion, the 
waiting. After about fifteen minutes, the video ends. We 
never see the strike. 


cineACTiON 69 


Despite its Iniiit specificity, Kunuk's general aesthetic 
echoes the roots of Canadian national cinema. The docu- 
mentary feel and ethnographic intent of the film recall the 
early work of the National Film Board (NFB), whose mission 
was to represent Canada to Canadians and to other nations. 
Over si.xty years after its founding, Kunuk's film extends 
this mission to the Inuit. Atunurjuut is most reminiscent of 
the Quehtoiis citwtnu direct projects of the 196()s, like Les 
Rihjiictteurs (Gilles Groulx and Michel Brault, 1958) and 
Pour la Suite dii Monde (Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault, 
1963), that captured the cultural specificity of the 
Qucbecois and contributed to French-Canadians' sense of 
national pride. Rooted in national cinema traditions, 
Kunuk's film ultimately expands them by introducing the 
possibility of an indigenous feature film aesthetic. 

In contrast, Whale Rider evidences a much more con- 
ventional style. Caro uses voiceover narration to suture us 
into Pai's point of view. Beginning the film and ending it, 
Pai's voice tells us about her spiritual connection to the 
ancestors and her quest to gain the respect of her grandfa- 
ther. Fhc camera rarely takes her point of view, instead we 
get long shots of Castle-Hughes' very expressive face; her 
pain and joy are right on the surface and we sympathize 
with her at every moment. Fhe plot takes shape around 
Pai's struggle and focuses on the key moments of her grow- 
ing knowledge and connection to her Maori heritage. The 
acting and narrative structure were carefully designed to 
have maximum emotional impact. 

While typical Western cinematic devices prevail, Whale 
Rider does draw upon what we might call a Maori aesthetic. 
Caro's film faintly echoes Barry Barclay's documentation of 
Maori life in his foundational feature films, specifically 
Nxati's portrayal of a tightly-knit community coming to 
terms with the influence of Pakeha society. Scenes of local 
rituals and community gatherings were a fundamental part 
of Barclay's film and he sought to chronicle as many of the 
quotidian aspects of Maori life as he could, in order to 
respectfully represent his culture on screen. •• Caro seems to 
follow in his footsteps, particularly in her representations of 
community members who gather at the marae or in some- 
one's home. N^^ati pays attention to these details on a small- 
er scale; the actions Barclay filmed do not always have sig- 
nificance in the overall narrative. Ilis film is more intimate 
in scope, whereas the focus in Whale Rider is always on the 
dramatic events that structure the plot. Caro has adapted 
some of the traditions of Maori filmmaking to a more main- 
stream cinema aesthetic. 

Atanarjiiat, Rahhit-Proof Fence i\n(\ Whale Rider draw upon 
the stylistic and thematic traditions of their respective 
national cinemas, hut all three infuse these traditions with 
a new' vision and purpose. In doing so they revitalize the 
goals of national cinema and the sense of identity that 
unites the people of each nation. All three films give voice 
to the silenced, colonized other, but in different ways. I'd 
like to suggest a distinction between the films that speaks to 
their respective goals and target audiences, specifically a 
distinction between films made with an ethnographic 
impulse and those that are spectacle-driven. 

Atanarjuat was made primarily for Inuit audiences so 


that they could see positive and accurate images of them- 
selves on the screen. In this sense, the film speaks back to 
all the reprehensible portrayals of hunts (Eskimos) 
throughout the history of cinema. Ethnographic in its 
intentions, it focuses on the recovery of a forgotten myth, 
lost traditions and abandoned cultural practices. Kunuk's 
production team re-learned traditional forms of hunting 
and craftsmanships in order to accurately re-create Inuit life 
before contact. The film was made according to a specific 
Inuit production process characterized by consensus and 
consultation, involving everyone in the decisions and 
checking with elders to ensure the film's cultural truth. 
Ultimately the film instilled knowledge and pride in 
young Inuit, who have a terribly high suicide rate. Kunuk 
has described seeing children playing Atanarjuat in the 
streets of his hometown. 

In contrast, Rahhit-Proof Fence and Whale Rider were 
clearly made for international consumption, to be market- 
ed through the festival circuit. Fhey worked with higher 
budgets and thus have higher production values, including 
the use of film rather than digital video. Both films feature 
local content that is globally-inflected and spectacle-driven. 
In each film the story hinges on a dramatic moment in 
which the global audience's sympathy for the young pro- 
tagonists is powerfully evoked. In Rahhit-Proof Fence this 
scene comes as Molly, Daisy and Gracie arc crossing the 
Australian desert. Fhe fence has fallen down and can no 
longer act as a guide. The three girls are overcome with 
hunger, thirst and fatigue; their bodies are emaciated, and 
the cinematography portrays them as mirages, their frail 
images flickering in the sun-distorted landscapie. Finally too 
tired to go on, they colIap)se in the sand, their faces caked 
with dirt and their skin singed by the sun. It is a moment of 
utter despxiir, but the audience is quickly rewarded with 
Molly's determination to go on. 

Whale Rider's climactic moment is split between Pai's 
moving speech in honor of her grandfather and the beach- 
ing of the whales. Caro begins with a scene of Pai struggling 
to deliver a speech she has written about her heritage. 
Standing on a stage high above the audience, Pai speaks 
about her grandfather's search for a new leader for her peo- 
ple, demonstrating her prescient understanding of the 
importance of this quest and her belief that both men and 
women should be allowed to represent her people. 
Interspersed with these scenes are shots of Koro emerging 
from this house to see several whales who have beached 
themselves. This sequence serves as the ultimate proof of 
Pai's connection to the ancestor, as she had called for his 
assistance in Koro's search, and he came. As the family 
members attempt to turn the whales around, Pai climbs on 
the back of the largest male and rides with him into the 
ocean; she becomes the whale rider. Fhc viewer is posi- 
tioned less as a member of the community in these 
sequences, and more as an empathctic observer to the spec- 
tacle. When Pai is taken out to sea on the whale's back, we 
are left with some doubt as to wiiether or not she survives, 
but this anxiety is quickly quelled with a scene in the hos- 
pital. Pai has recovered and the film ends as Koro visits her 
to ask her forgiveness. 


70 cineACTiON 


As I've suggested, despite their differing approaches to 
indigenous culture, each film has had an enormous impact, 
not only on its national cinema, hut also in the public 
sphere as well. Rabbit-Proof Fence and Atunnrjiuit raised 
awareness of specific events in colonial history that had 
been elided in official discourse. In addition, the existence 
of the first Inuit language feature film has suggested the 
need for changes in Canadian film policy, which currently 
operates under a bilingual system v\^ith funding for films in 
English and in French. In New Zealand, the success of 
Whale Rider, a Maori film by a Pakeha filmmaker, has also 
brought the possibility of change in state film policy. 
Recently Barry Barclay and soFiie colleagues submitted a 
proposal for government funding to he set aside specifical- 
ly for films made by Maori filmmakers. I he proposal strong- 
ly argues that Maori must speak for themselves, rather than 
have non-Maori speak for them.'^ 

Similarly in Australia, two government initiatives 
sparked by the production of Rabbit-Proof Fence (directed by 
a White Australian) address this issue. Fhe Australian Film 
Commission has created a training program for Indigenous 
Film and TV production and also tackled questions of pro- 
tocol with its paper, " Fowards a Protocol for Filmmakers 
Working with Indigenous Content and Indigenous 
Communities." The document poses questions such as 
"How can non-lndigenous filmmakers be encouraged to get 
the portrayal of Indigenous peoples 'right'?" and it uses 
Rabbit-Proof Fence as a model for a positive working rela- 
tionship between Indigenous peoples and non-lndigenous 
filmmakers. 

Fhese new developments in national cinema raise an 
important question: who should be making indigenous cin- 
ema? Is indigenous cinema production solely the right and 
responsibility of indigenous filmmakers? While indigenous 
media scholars suggest that indigenous people should be 
allowed to depict themselves on screen, is their role limited 
to that of director? 

David MacDougall sums up the contemporary situation 
for indigenous visual culture best, urging us to recognize that 

. . . ethnographic films for multiple audiences must 
confront contending versions of reality. Further they 
must acknowledge historical experiences which over- 
shadow any text and which inevitably escape from it. I 
think that we will therefore see films which become 
repositories of multiple authorship, confrontation, and 
exchange . . . films which are produced by and belong 
equally to two cultures ... If we are in the midst of a 
new revolution, as I believe we are, it is one which is 
interested in multiple voices and which might be called 
an intertextual cinema. 

Atanarjnat, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Whale R/dcrare examples 
of MacDougall's intertextual cinema, in their ability to 
blend ethnographic and indigenous media traditions with 
feature film conventions, allowing for the wide dissemina- 
tion of historically silenced voices. These voices speak a 
crucial cultural message: indigenous cultures are still here 
and may suggest a new direction for national cinemas. 


Atanarjnat, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Whale Rider usher in a 
newer, revitalized form of national cinema, one that can 
stand up to the homogenizing powers of globalization. 
While they attract global audiences, they remain firmly 
rooted in a specific local culture and place. I hey not only 
entertain diverse viewers, hut they also empower the colo- 
nized other within the postcolonial nation. What more 
could national cinemas hope for? 

Jennifer L. Gauthier is Assistant Professor of Communication at 
Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia. She has written 
and presented papers on Canadian, Australian and New Zealand 
national cinema and cultural policy. Her dissertation, "Split 
Screen: Notional Cinema, Cultural Policy and Identity in Canada" 
is currently being revised for publication. She has also taught 
film history and theory at Vassar College. 

NOTES 

1 Although Roeg is a British director, his film is often included in the 
canon of foundational Australian films, and as Tom O'Regan points 
out, Australians have adopted this film as their own. See O'Regan, 
Australian National Cinema. London: Routledge, 1996, p. 56. 

2 Like many of his contemporaries in Canada and Australia, Tamahori 
migrated to Hollywood and has directed, among other things, the 
most recent james Bond installment. Die Another Day (2002). 

3 This historical moment is alternately referred to as "The Lost 
Generation," but the adjective "stolen" more clearly conveys the 
force with which the children were taken from their families. In 
addition, the children were not, strictly speaking, lost; it was quite 
clear that they had been taken to work camps spread across the 
nation. 

4 The full text of the report of available online at 
<http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/rsjlibrary/hreoc/ 
stolen/>. The website is maintained by the Reconciliation and 
Social justice Library of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. 

5 See for example Robert Paine, ed. The White Arctic: Anthropological 
Essays on Tutelage and Ethnicity, Toronto: University of Toronto 
Press, 1977. 

6 Native Networks, "Zacharias Kunuk on Atanarjuat." Smithsonian 
Museum of the American Indian. Available at 
http://wvvw.nativenetworks.si.edu/features/zk_interview3.html. 

7 Michael Meadows, "Ideas from the bush: Indigenous television in 
Australia and Canada," Canadian journal of Communication 20 no. 2 
(1995): pp. 11-12. 

8 Helen Molnar and Michael Meadows, Songlines to Satellites: 
Indigenous Communication in Australia, The South Pacific and 
Canada, Australia: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 49. 

9 Atanarjuat, DVD Production Notes, (original emphasis), Igloolik 
Isuma Productions, 2001 . 

10 Peter Kulchyski, "The Postmodern and the Paleolithic: Notes on 
Technology and Native Community in the Far North," Canadian 
journal of Political and Social Theory 1 3 no. 3 (1989): pp. 60-61 . 

1 1 Barry Barclay, "The Control of One's Own Image", Illusions 8 
(1988): pp. 8-14. 

1 2 Miriam Hill, "Action figures next step for Atanarjuat,'' Nunatsiaq 
News 5 April 2002. Available at 
<http://www.nunatsiaq.com/archives/nunavut 
020405/news/nunavut/20405_6.html>. 

1 3 Barry Barclay, Merata Mita, and Tainul Stephens, "Mana Maori 
Paepae." Document shared with the author by Barry Barclay. 

14 Australian Film Commission, "Towards and Protocol for Filmmakers 
Working with Indigenous Content and Indigenous Communities," 
February 2003, p. 9. Available at 
http://www.afc.gov.au/protocols.index. html. 

1 5 David MacDougall, "Complicities of Style," in Peter Ian Crawford 
and David Turton, eds.. Film as Ethnography (Manchester: 
Manchester University Press, 1992), p. 97. 


cineACTiON 71 


LETTERS 


In the last issue I edited, #60, on East 
Asian Cinemas, I included an article by 
Catherine Russell, "Three Japanese 
Actresses of the 1950s: Modernity, 
Femininity and the Performance of 
Everyday Life." In issue #62, Robin 
Wood, as editor, printed a letter in 
response to Dr. Russell that was highly 
critical of her argument, and append- 
ed to it a similarly critical response of 
his own. Dr. Russell wrote a reply to 
both which was printed in the last 
issue. 

In the meantime, we received and 
responded to a letter from the Film 
Studies Association of Canada (see 
below). There is one last exchange 
here: a final letter from Robin and a 
closure of debate by Dr. Russell. 

Susan Morrison 


20 h'clmum' 2004 
To the (Mliectivc: 

We write in reference to the editorial 
comment offered by Robin Wood on 
Catherine Russell's article on Ozu, 
which appeared in CincAetion #62. 

We do not recall ever seeing a 
writer being denounced by one of her 
own editors in the pages of the maga- 
zine where her work appeared. That 
this writer was denounced without an 
opportunity to rehut in the same issue 
is also something we have never seen. 
So we would like to make the follow- 
ing query: 

Does ChieAetUm have any policy at 
all regarding the rights of their writers 
to ( 1 ) e.xpect support from those who 
appear on the masthead of the maga- 
zine as editors (as Robin Wood does), 
and (2) to expect the opportunity to 
answer any reasoned critiques (such as 
that of Alexander Jacoby's, also found 
in CineAction #62) or more uii Iwniineni 
attacks (such as Wood's) in the same 
issue in which they appear? 

If such a policy exists, we urge 
(jneAction to let the Canadian film 
community know about it. If no such 
policy exists, and those who write for 
( 'hwAction can expect no protection or 
consideration from the editors who 
publish their writing in the magazine, 
we urge CineAction to make this explic- 
it as well. 

Yours fihthfuliy, 

The Executive of the Fihn Stmlies 
Association of Canuila 
Hrenila Austin-Smith, 

Dave Douylas, Zoe Druick, Janina 
Falkowska, Chris Gittiti\’s, Christ it w 
Ramsay, Christina Stoyanova, Pierre 
Veronneau, Jerry White 


From CineAction 

Regular readers of this magazine may 
know that one or two members of the 
editorial collective on a rotating basis 
edit each issue. I he editor is responsi- 
ble for the theme of the issue and for 
review, selection and editing of sub- 
missions. But, of course, all the editors 
are film critics as well, fully involved 
with writing about and debating issues 
in film studies. We encourage critical 
debate and exchange and occasionally 
receive letters in response to articles. 
We include ourselves as engaged par- 
ticipants in such debates; spirited, 
even sharp, disagreement among crit- 
ics is important for a vital film culture. 
One such exchange concerning 
Catherine Russell's article on Japanese 
cinema continues above. We also 
acknowledge that writer's replies to let- 
ters are best included, if possible, in 
the same issue and will endeavour to 
follow that practice in the future. 

Scott Forsyth, 

for the editorial collective 


Robin Wood's response to Catherine 
Russell's letter in issue #63 
1 have a number of comments on 
Ms. Russell's letter: 

1. Each issue of ClineAction has a 
different editor (in some cases two edi- 
tors) who has sole responsibility. Ms. 
Russell's article appeared in an issue 
edited by Susan Morrison, and I'm 
sure Susan would have been extremely 
annoyed if I had tried to intervene. 1 
did not read Ms. Russell's article until 
it appeared in print; I responded to it 
as a critic, not as an editor. I saw^ no 
reason to 'invite' Ms. Russell to 
'defend' herself - she was obviously at 
liberty to do so, and has in fact done 
so. Surely 'the common pursuit of true 
judgement' must take precedence over 
any petty personal amioyance. What 
matters is how we are to read Ozu. 

2. In the editorial to which she 
refers 1 suggested that criticism should 
always he centred on 'questions of 
value' (a phrase that for me immedi- 
ately evokes the work of F.R. Leavis): 
the value which v\'e ascribe to a given 
work. Ms. Russell changes this to 
'questions of values', meaning at first 
the values of different critics, though 
in the next sentence it becomes the 
values expressed within different 
works. The confusion here reminds me 
of one of those alien beings in horror 
films that can change shape within 
seconds, and I shall not attempt to 
elucidate her actual meaning. 

.3. 1 am puzzled by Ms. Russell's 


statement that she 'chooses' to read 
Ozu as a conservative. Can a responsi- 
ble critic choose an interpretation, 
supposedly from a range of possibili- 
ties, as one might choose tc) lead a 
heart rather than a diamond? I would 
have thought one arrived at one 
through careful textual analysis, test- 
ing it in relation to the entire w'ork. 

4. My objection to Ms. Russell's 
article was quite explicitly based upon 
one sentence, in which she says (and 
it remains there in print for all to see) 
'...llara's character never actually gets 
married', a statement that is quite sim- 
ply and plainly untrue. She now sur- 
reptitiously substitutes a different sen- 
tence ('...Hara is never seen to he hap- 
pily married') and pretends that that is 
what she originally said. 1 shall not 
comment on the ethics of this, hut it 
scarcely facilitates a meaningful critical 
exchange. In fact, Hara is never seen 
to be married in the films, happily or 
not. Late Spring is the only one in 
which she gets married during the 
running time, and she is never shown 
after the wedding day. We see her first 
bowed down under the cumbersome 
traditional wedding dress, miserable 
and helpless, the sequence ending elo- 
quently with a shot of the now empty 
mirror after she is led off to the cere- 
mony. If (as Ms. Russell asserts) 'this 
refusal of marriage' does not 'consti- 
tute a "resistance" to the institution of 
marriage', what does it constitute? 

And how can 'a critique of marriage' 
not he 'a political gesture'? 

5. My own 'progressive' reading of 
Ozu in Sexual Politics and Narrative 
Film (more precisely, of the three films 
in which Setsuko Hara plays 'Noriko') 
was supported by detailed textual 
analysis (the only way, in my opinion, 
to arrive at a w'ork's meaning and, 
consequently, value). Ms.Russell nei- 
ther shows me where I went wTong 
nor offers any comparably detailed 
reading, merely 'choosing' a conserva- 
tive one. She supports this choice 
mainly by appealing to Japanese cul- 
ture at that period, ifi my view a very 
dangerous proceeding, especially in 
relation to an artist as idiosyncratic 
and intransigent as Ozu. I must, how- 
ever, thank her for her generous per- 
mission to 'hold on' to my 'progres- 
sive' reading. 1 shall continue to do so 
until such time as it is effectively chal- 
lenged. 

Robin Wood 

Catherine Russell's response 

Dr. Russell declined the opportunity to 

respond to Robin Wood's letter. 


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